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East Timor: UN forces swoop on pro-Indonesia guerrilla unit

BRITISH AND Australian special forces, working in collaboration with East Timorese guerrillas, have arrested 20 anti-independence paramilitaries in the peace-keeping force's first armed confrontation with pro-Indonesian forces.

The incident occurred on Monday evening in the far eastern reaches of East Timor. Some 40 soldiers from the rapid reaction force of the International Force East Timor (Interfet) flew to the remote port of Com, where armed militia men had been terrorising local people. Twenty members of the notorious Team Alpha group were seized, with a cache of weapons.

The rapid reaction force includes members of the British Special Boat Service and the Australian Special Air Service. Having arrived on the scene in Blackhawk helicopters, the Interfet troops warned the militia men to lay down their weapons or be fired upon. They surrendered without a shot being fired and yesterday they were being interrogated in the East Timorese capital, Dili.

The dramatic chain of events began on Sunday, when a group of East Timorese Catholics were murdered as they travelled between Baucau and Los Palos in East Timor's remote Lautem regency. At least nine people, including an Italian and Timorese nun, two deacons and a trainee priest were reported to have been killed in a Team Alpha ambush.

Guerrillas of the Falintil independence army set out to recover the bodies and became involved in a gun battle in which 13 paramilitary members were killed. After a later confrontation at the port of Com, Falintil telephoned Interfet, which dispatched the helicopters in the evening. "The Interfet force came in when it was asked, and 13 guns were captured along with 20 militia men," a spokesman for the Falintil field commander, Taur Matan Ruak, told The Independent by phone from his headquarters in the mountain village of Waimori.

The operation represents the first active collaboration between the multinational force and Falintil. Its success will deflect mounting criticism of Interfet for being too cautious in its deployment, which is largely confined to Dili. Earlier on Monday, the force made its first significant foray into militia-dominated territory, when 150 Australian soldiers travelled to the town of Liquisa, 20 kilometres from Dili. Two machine-gun nests were found in the hills above the town.