Indonesia on a knife-edge

President Habibie close to resigning UN staff in East Timor plead for help Thousands flee as Dili burns
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The Independent Online
THE UNITED Nations was engaged in a desperate last-minute effort to protect its besieged staff in East Timor last night amid fears that personnel will be murdered by Indonesian soldiers and militiamen before they can flee to Australia.

Staff appealed to foreign governments to put all possible pressure on Indonesia after it emerged that heavy machine-guns had been mounted on the road between the UN mission in East Timor's capital, Dili, and the airport. The evacuation is expected to be tomorrow.

"We are very vulnerable and are concerned that we will be harmed by the militias," said David Wimhurst, spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission to East Timor (Unamet), who evacuated to Darwin on Monday. "All previous assurances ... by the Indonesian armed forces have not been realised. We are directly appealing to governments to guarantee our security and to monitor the withdrawal."

The crisis was threatening to engulf all Indonesia last night as rumours gripped the capital, Jakarta, that President B J Habibie was considering resigning, which could open the way for the military to seize control. Western diplomats said they had learnt that he was "sleeping on a decision" to quit this morning. They cautioned, however, that he might yet be persuaded to stay on to avert a constitutional crisis.

The events coincided with the arrival in Jakarta of a delegation of five ambassadors from the UN Security Council, hoping to persuade Indonesia to allow the deployment of foreign peace-keepers in East Timor to restore order.

But events appeared to be overtaking the ambassadors, whose members included the British representative at the UN, Sir Jeremy Greenstock. Last night, they were still hoping to meet President Habibie at his palace this morning.

The operation to extract the UN staff, including locally hired workers and 200 officials in the compound in Dili, will be fraught with danger. Last week a UN policeman was seriously injured and dozens of others narrowly escaped death when Indonesian police riddled UN cars with bullets as they left a regional office in East Timor.

Yesterday 5,000 people were herded into the port of Dili in what the UN said was a forced "cleansing" of pro- independence Timorese.

UN staff attempting to retrieve food and water from a warehouse in Dili were fired on by militiamen under the noses of the Indonesian police in whose vehicles they were travelling. There was speculation that Australian troops may have to embark on a rescue operation to extract UN staff.

Tony Blair ordered HMS Glasgow to the waters off Timor to help in the evacuation. Britain is also sending a dozen military planners to work under Australian military command.

Even if the foreign residents of the compound, who include Portuguese diplomats and a handful of foreign journalists, are safely evacuated, the withdrawal of Unamet is likely to provoke a massacre of the refugees there. "If Unamet packs and leaves, genocide will begin in a few hours," said Jose Ramos-Horta, East Timor's foreign minister in exile.

The decision to evacuate was taken by Kofi Annan, UNsecretary general, after he received a plea from the head of Unamet, Ian Martin, who remained in the compound yesterday. Mr Martin said all modern buildings in Dili were burning and that phone lines, water and electricity supplies had been cut.

Under siege by angry members of the anti-independence militia, the UN compound was surviving on a dwindling supply of food and power from a generator.

Mr Annan said last night that Indonesia had "failed utterly" to maintain order" and pleaded with Jakarta to allow foreign peace-keepers in to restore order.

Mr Greenstock said that Security Council members would carry the same message "in the strongest possible terms" to President Habibie - if they see him.

"We will tell him that this has blown up way beyond what is acceptable," Sir Jeremy said last night.

"No one has confidence any more that the Indonesian government on their own are going to do it quickly enough. Therefore, please, the international community makes it clear that it is ready to launch an operation to help Indonesia to restore security."

But nothing that the delegation had heard by last night gave them reason for optimism. They were given a tough reception by the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas, who only reiterated the Indonesian position that it alone would bring order to East Timor.

Asking that the international community wait another "two or three days" before pondering any action, he cited the declaration by President Habibie - under pressure from the military - of martial law in the province late on Tuesday.

The ambassadors themselves had a small taste of danger yesterday. After hearing the Unamet briefing inside UN headquarters in central Jakarta, they were hustled from a side-door after a mob of about 300 protesters gathered outside.

The protesters chanted anti-UN slogans, burned a UN flag and threw stones, breaking a window.

One hundred Indonesia police were deployed to protect the ambassadors.

Should President Habibie step down, there is no telling where power would shift.

Under the constitution, the vice-president would take over. But there is no vice-president because that was Mr Habibie's position when he took over 18 months ago, when intense rioting in Jakarta displaced President Suharto.

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