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East Timor Crisis: Nato reluctant to dispatch forces

YESTERDAY'S VIOLENCE in East Timor, literally on the doorstep of the United Nations mission, opens a diplomatic can of worms that the international community has been desperate to keep closed.

The growing pressure to dispatch some kind of armed peace-keeping force to the territory raises anxious questions. Who will provide such a force? What will its mandate be? And how will it be reconciled with the complex politics of East Asia?

With Nato countries already heavily committed in Kosovo, there will be great reluctance to commit more troops in a place so geographically and emotionally distant from European and American voters.

Since the handover of Hong Kong, the United States is the only Western power with any significant military presence in Asia and it is preoccupied with tension over Taiwan and North Korea.

The obvious candidate is Australia, the closest developed country to East Timor and Indonesia, and the one with the most to lose from any deterioration in the security situation there. Since June the First Brigade, the vanguard of Australia's rapid-reaction force, has been carrying out manoeuvres near Darwin, the country's northernmost city.

The Australian government has denied that the exercises have anything to do with the situation in East Timor, but the presence of such a force strongly suggests that preparations for the evacuation of Australian and other foreign nationals are well in hand.

Earlier this month Canberra was embarrassed by a report in an Australian newspaper that the government had made plans for a joint operation with the US to send 15,000 troops to East Timor in the event of uncontrolled violence there. Governments in Canberra have traditionally been wary of doing anything to offend the government of Indonesia, their huge, over- populated and unstable northern neighbour.

After Indonesia annexed East Timor in 1976, only Australia recognised it.

Yesterday's suggestion by Don McKinnon, New Zealand's Foreign Minister, that non-UN peace-keepers might have to be sent was quickly quashed by the Australian Foreign Ministry.

But the UN's record on East Timor is also poor. Until the fall last year of the Indonesian president, Suharto, the Security Council avoided the subject rather than embarrass its stalwart anti-Communist friend.

The UN-brokered deal which allowed Monday's referendum on independence clearly states that only the Indonesian police have any power to enforce security in East Timor.

The terms of deployment would probably take weeks of negotiation and might be vetoed in the Security Council by China, which has its own reasons for opposing foreign interference in internal affairs, especially on humanitarian grounds.