UN warns Indonesia as bishop appeals for help

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THE MAJOR powers were struggling last night to find a formula for a peace-keeping force for East Timor amid scepticism over the shoot- on-sight curfew imposed by Indonesia in the province.

As a delegation from the United Nations Security Council headed for Jakarta, Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary, cut short a visit to Japan for talks in New Zealand with the foreign ministers of Australia and Asian countries, and the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. Kofi Annan, UN secretary general, said that if martial law did not work, the world community would consider "other measures".

The diplomatic flurry came as Indonesia released the East Timorese political leader, Xanana Gusmao, and the territory's spiritual leader, Bishop Carlos Belo, flew to Australia to appeal for the world to rescue his people. "They feel they are unable to fight against all the waves of violence," he said in Darwin. "They expect the international community to act, urgently, immediately ... "

There had been fears Mr Gusmao would be sent directly to East Timor, where he would have faced almost certain assassination at the hands of the army and militias. He has taken sanctuary at the British embassy in Jakarta.

In Dili, the East Timor capital, the United Nations mission, Unamet, was relying on an emergency generator and satellite phones to keep in contact.

Overnight the Australian consulate came under fire from automatic rifles and staff being evacuated at the UN's regional office in Baucau were forced to the floor as Indonesian soldiers shattered windows with a hail of bullets. "We were shot upon directly," said Sylvain Groulx, an international observer sheltering with the mission. "It was a clear message, `Get out of here now. We want all foreigners out'."

Despite the worldwide clamour, there was no sign last night of a specific outside initiative emerging. With most UN personnel and foreign journalists having been evacuated from Dili, it was hard to gauge whether the curfew ordered by Jakarta was having any effect on quelling the savagery.

UN officials said the violence was part of a systematic effort to expel up to a third of the population - and thus discredit the overwhelming pro- independence vote in the 30 August referendum. Mr Gusmao accused the Indonesian army itself, as well as its client militias, of carrying out wholesale killings.

Last night it was clear any peace-keeping mission would be led by Australia, which says it can send 2,000 troops within 24 to 72 hours, with 2,000 more to follow. John Moore, the Australian Defence Minister, estimated that a total force of 6,000 to 7,000 men would be sufficient, though independent analysts put the required number much higher.

But, like other potential regional contributors to the force, Canberra is unwilling to act without at least the tacit agreement of Indonesia, and is anxious that other powers, above all the US, join the force. So far New Zealand and Malaysia have said they would take part. Portugal, the former colonial power and Canada are also ready to send troops.

Washington has had stern words with Jakarta but has given no firm promises of participation. Britain and most other Nato countries, whose forces are already stretched thin by duties in Kosovo, Bosnia and elsewhere, would make only a token contribution at best, officials have indicated.