Troops sent in despite promises

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THE TINY port of Com, close to the eastern tip of East Timor, looks like a place at the end of the world: an empty sand beach, a line of tattered palms, and a thin concrete pier with a lonely fisherman at its tip. Here, even more than in the rest of this sleepy and idyllic island, it is difficult to believe in the war for which East Timor has become notorious. But the people of Com have plenty of reasons to fear violence and to doubt the official version that, after 23 years of occupation by Indonesia, peace is coming to East Timor.

The reasons are explained by an old man walking slowly up the rutted road which leads over the hills to the nearest town. Talking in the open makes him nervous, but protected by the darkened windows of our hired jeep, he relaxes and describes the scene here in early August when Com was transformed.

A large troop ship, bearing the number 509, docked at the pier and a battalion of Indonesian soldiers disembarked. "There were more than 700 of them," he says. "They had M-16s and machine guns. They walked along the road, and now all the people are afraid, afraid that they will be killed by soldiers."

Since the fall of President Suharto opened up new freedoms in Indonesia five months ago, government leaders and activists outside the country have begun to talk with optimism of what was previously unthinkable - a peaceful, negotiated solution to the war in East Timor. In the United Nations, Indonesia and Portugal, which ruled East Timor until Suharto's invasion in 1975, have held cautious talks. The imprisoned guerrilla leader, Xanana Gusmao, has been visited in his Jakarta jail by foreign officials, including the British minister, Derek Fatchett. But in East Timor the atmosphere is very different.

After interviews conducted all over East Timor with local leaders, Catholic priests, members of the thriving clandestine movement, as well as ordinary people like the old man in Com one thing is clear: despite public promises to reduce military levels and negotiate a peaceful solution to the war, the Indonesian government has moved large numbers of new troops into the occupied territory, reactivated notorious paramilitary units, and launched a number of recent attacks on the remnants of the rebel resistance in the hills.

The first landings at Com took place days after a much better publicised military event in the capital, Dili, where brass bands and dozens of journalists turned out to witness the departure of a thousand Indonesian commandos.

At the time the Jakarta government called it a "withdrawal". In recent meetings with British and American officials, it has spoken of a "rotation". But many in Timor believe that what has taken place is a significant military build-up.

The military presence is obvious simply from driving around. Every few miles are command posts containing regular territorial troops. But there are stranger tales: those of men in unmarked uniforms seizing and interrogating locals. Sources report that training sessions for so-called "paramilitaries" have been conducted near the town of Los Palos and others describe hearing the sounds of rifle training.