Dawn landing for first wave of peace-keepers

EAST TIMOR CRISIS Australian general warns Indonesia that his initial 2,500 troops will `respond robustly' to any renewed violence by militias
  • @kathymarksoz
SHORTLY AFTER dawn today, a C-130 Hercules transport plane will land in the East Timorese capital, Dili, carrying the first wave of troops from the international force given the perilous and unpredictable task of restoring peace to the shattered province.

By late afternoon, 2,500 soldiers - most of them Australian, but also including 250 British Royal Gurkha Rifles - are expected to have arrived in Dili by air and sea. They will be followed by 10 helicopters and a naval ship transporting supplies and armoured personnel carriers.

The deployment of peacekeeping troops in the world's latest trouble spot follows a resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council last week giving Interfet, the International Force for East Timor, a robust mandate to restore law and order.

The next few weeks will see the force swell to up to 8,000 troops from 20 countries. Much of East Timor is devastated after militia groups opposed to independence embarked on an orgy of bloodshed, looting and burning.

The first wave of troops, due to land in Dili at 6.30am (23.30 British Summer Time), is likely to comprise several hundred soldiers from Australia's Rapid Deployment Force, based in Townsville, north Queensland. They are expected to secure the airport ahead of the arrival of the main contingent from Darwin, staging-post for the force, 420 miles to the south.

The force is led by Australia's Major-General Peter Cosgrove, who paid a brief visit to Dili yesterday to secure guarantees of co-operation from Indonesian army commanders. He warned that Interfet was ready "to respond robustly" to any violence.

"This is not a time for idle threats or words," he said after touring the ruined streets of Dili. "We will be here to ensure that all East Timorese are able to go about their business free of threat." Major-General Kiki Syahnakri, commander of the Indonesian forces in East Timor, said the army would hand over control of the province in a few days' time.

The militias - with renegade elements in the Indonesian army - are the wild card as the multinational force lands in East Timor, a former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesia in 1975.

The head of the force's British contingent, Brigadier David Richards, said yesterday of Indonesia's TNI army: "We expect co-operation, at least formally, although we are alive to the fact that at a lower level we should be prepared for anything."

The prospect that the tide is about to turn for luckless East Timor was signalled by the arrival in Darwin from Jakarta yesterday of the East Timorese independence leader, Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, who began drawing up plans for a transitional government for the province.

Among the troops deployed today will be representatives of other countries that have pledged troops, including Thailand, which has supplied the deputy commander of the force. The force will be supported by nine warships from Britain, Australia and New Zealand which sailed out of Darwin on Saturday.

International aid agencies are waiting to follow in the footsteps of the force, to begin a full-scale relief operation on the ground. So far, aid has largely been restricted to food drops from the air.