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West tries to halt Timor vote violence

WESTERN COUNTRIES are squaring up for a political struggle against the Indonesian army over East Timor. They are desperately looking for ways to stop the soldiers using violence and terror to block a vote on independence.

Tomorrow foreign ministers from Indonesia and Portugal sign a deal at the UN in New York offering East Timorese the chance to choose on 8 August between independence and autonomy. Most observers expect a majority, embittered by 23 years of Indonesian brutality, to choose independence.

The Indonesian president, BJ Habibie, wants the ballot to go ahead: it was he who offered the East Timorese the chance to vote against Jakarta. If they do, he said last week, "we'll separate in peace, as friends and with honour".

But he is a weak civilian president with little influence over conservative nationalists in the army. Officers have been using militiamen to attack people who oppose Indonesian rule. Dozens have died and independence leaders have been forced into exile or hiding.

"It's Habibie and the international community versus the Indonesian armed forces, and it's an unequal struggle," said a diplomat.

Western countries spent decades kowtowing to the generals, training their men and selling them arms. Now they have two months to persuade them not to spoil the ballot.

Part of the persuasion will come from UN policemen due in East Timor from 10 May. Their official role will be to advise Indonesian police on supervising the ballot. Their less official role will be to keep an eye on the security forces and send a discreet message to the army that East Timor is now an international problem.

Even so, the UN police - and, just before the poll, election monitors - will find it hard to keep an eye on what the army, militias and officials are doing in East Timor's hundreds of towns and villages.

"If the army still helps the militias, the police presence alone won't mean much," said Hendardi, the Indonesian lawyer of Xanana Gusmao, East Timor's independence leader, who has called from his Jakarta jail for UN peace-keeping troops tobe deployed to disarm the militias.

But with many Western countries entangled in the Balkans war, they are unlikely to be sent. Instead, Indonesia's former allies in the West are looking for less expensive and risky ways of making their point to the army. There is little point threatening to cut loans or aid, because that would hurt Mr Habibie more than the army.

But the West can threaten to cut remaining links with the military. The United States and Australia have held exercises with Indonesia. Washington was planning joint naval manoeuvres this year; these could be scrapped. Britain is still delivering arms: two Hawk aircraft arrived last week under a contract dating back to the Tory government.

Western officials can only hope that reducing these links, plus the UN presence, will dissuade Indonesia's soldiers and their allies from using violence.

A European official admitted the chances might be "less than half". If so, there is a risk the vote is going to be delayed, or turn into a bloody farce.