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The puppet leader grants an audience

THE ENVOYS of the United Nations Security Council penetrated the brilliant white walls of the presidential palace in Jakarta shortly before noon yesterday. This was the meeting that mattered. They were to see the head of state, the man ultimately responsible for the bloodbath in East Timor.

But they went with foreboding, because no assumption about this head of state and his command of his country could be made. They had heard it from diplomats all across town: President B J Habibie is weak, he is about to be voted out of power in an election in November and, even in power, its levers are elsewhere. The evening before, the city had crackled with rumours that he was to resign.

In the Balkans, Western governments knew who was in charge and who to berate. In Jakarta, however, another impression is given: of a nearly total and quite cynical disconnection between Mr Habibie and his government. And between him and the military.

The meeting bore out their fears. Mr Habibie opened with an hour-long monologue, spoken through a microphone even though his guests were only feet away He launched into irrelevant tangents. He interrupted ambassadors when they were at last allowed to speak.

He appeared with his cabinet ranged beside him - including Chief General Wiranto, the imposing head of the Indonesian military. The German-trained aeronautical engineer who was the longest-serving minister during the tarnished reign of his predecessor, President Suharto, has long been viewed with deep suspicion, especially by the powerful military.

The meeting did nothing to convey unity between ministers and head of state. One minister audibly chortled when Mr Habibie suggested he was not really a politician but an engineer. Worse, the President, according to one official, appeared either unable or unwilling to acknowledge what the world thinks it has seen in East Timor. He characterised the reports of mass killings and terror as "fantasies" and "lies". Thus, he said, Indonesia could handle it without outside help.

Perhaps, therefore, it need not be such a puzzle that Mr Habibie, who invited the UN to organise the 30 August referendum in East Timor, has not moved more quickly to end the mayhem. He does not understand it and if he did he does not have the power to stop it. That rests with the army.