The mission was leaving New York late last night as the UN was scrambling to keep up with the spiralling crisis. Diplomats in New York acknowledged that the explosion of violence in the province now threatens to derail entirely last week's four-fifths vote in favour of independence.
Such a deployment of Security Council ambassadors - including representatives from Britain, Malaysia, Namibia, Slovenia and the Netherlands - is a highly unusual move and clearly signals the UN's determination to save the secession process from sabotage. Critics charged, however, that instead of sending just more words to Jakarta, the Council should be sending guns and soldiers to East Timor.
Australia put troops on emergency alert, increasing the readiness of its peacekeeping forces from 72 to 24 hours. A spokesman for President Clinton said the United States favoured Australian help in restoring peace, provided Indonesia accepted it. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said that the United States was "very concerned" about the violence and had made clear its "displeasure" to Jakarta - though her initial attempts to contact the Indonesian foreign minister, Ali Atalas, failed.
The prospects of deploying any kind of foreign force to East Timor will remain slim for as long as the Indonesian government refuses to open the door for one. Under the UN-brokered agreement that made last week's vote possible, Jakarta remains solely responsible for East Timor and its security until its parliament rescinds the 1976 annexation of the island. That may not happen for weeks.
While sources in New York acknowledged that the Council delegation may try to elicit a change in the provisions of the original agreement from the Indonesian government to allow a military force into the province much sooner, diplomats would not dare acknowledge this publicly, for fear of alienating the leadership in Jakarta before the Council members even get there.
The UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, has secretly told his staff to accelerate contingency plans for a much earlier deployment of peace-keepers to the island than originally envisaged. But even if Indonesia were to cede control of the island early, putting together such a force would be a protracted operation, hampered by political difficulties. There remains the possibility that Australia, New Zealand and the US could assemble a force of their own and seek UN blessing for its deployment to East Timor.
Even that scenario remains contingent on the acquiescence of Jakarta. "Nobody is about to go up against Indonesia on this," a senior western official insisted. The difficulties were further underlined yesterday by the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Don McKinnon. "The credibility of the UN is really on the line now," he said.
The ambassadors are en route to Jakarta partly because the Council had to do something in the face of the soaring death toll in East Timor and the predicament of UN employees, many of whom have now fled to Australia.
If East Timor dissolves into anarchy and secession from Indonesia is blocked, arguments in favour of giving the UN a standing peace-keeping army will no doubt resurface. If such a force existed today, it could be ready for deployment at once - if anyone could persuade Indonesia to accept it.Reuse content