Indonesia begins to withdraw armed forces

t EAST TIMOR Australian Prime Minister Howard delivers a warning to Jakarta that any attack on peace-keepers will provoke `massive retaliation'

THE AUSTRALIAN government promised "massive" retaliation against any attacks on international troops bound for East Timor yesterday, amid signs that the Indonesian armed forces were beginning to withdraw from the territory.

Weapons, ammunition and computers were being loaded on to navy ships in the capital, Dili, yesterday, and the local commander of the Indonesian military (TNI) Major-General Kiki Syahnakri, said that 7,000 troops were in the process of being withdrawn from East Timor.

About 2,000 Australian, New Zealand and British troops have already gathered in Darwin, and are expected to fly into East Timor from Australia as early as tomorrow as the advance party of International Force East Timor (Interfet). The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, warned that any attacks on the peace-keepers would escalate international condemnation of the TNI's campaign of violence.

"They would know that would provoke a massive reaction from other parts of the world," he said in Canberra yesterday. "If that were to occur, then that in turn would provoke a much stronger level of intervention and retaliation, including, I believe, stronger involvement by countries that are now giving important support but not massive support."

The signals coming out of Indonesia were still mixed yesterday, and it is clear that large numbers of TNI troops and pro-Jakarta militias will still be on the ground when Interfet enters the territory to enforce last month's overwhelming vote for independence. "It is expected that tension will rise but we will take steps so that those things will not happen," Maj-Gen Syahnakri said. Today's planned visit to East Timor by Maj-Gen Peter Cosgrove, the Australian commander of Interfet, was abruptly cancelled without explanation last night.

Leandro Isaac, an East Timorese independence leader, in hiding in the territory, told Portuguese radio that TNI soldiers and their tame militias had attacked refugees near the town of Dare. He also said Dili was being mined "by the militias, the special forces and the TNI".

Militia leaders in West Timor promised violence against the international forces. "We East Timorese are thirsty for the blood of white people," said Eurico Guterres, leader of the Aitarak militia.

Indonesia was threatened by fresh political turmoil last night as bitter recriminations over President B J Habibie's decision to allow foreign forces into East Timor swelled in the capital, Jakarta. Opposition figures announced they were planning to set up a "leadership-in-waiting" that would be poised to seize control. The manoeuvring came amid growing sentiment that the rule of President Habibie was starting to crumble under pressure generated by the East Timor crisis as well as a fast-growing financial scandal.

In another ominous development, the members of the outgoing lower house of parliament said they had summoned the President to its chamber on Monday to explain why he had buckled under outside pressure and announced his decision last weekend to allow the United Nations to send in the multinational force.

Rumours were circulating that several senior ministers might defect and join the opposition groups, who said they would meet next week to discuss establishing the shadow leadership. "The meeting is being planned and it will take place soon," confirmed a spokesman for the opposition Nation Awakening Party.

There is a growing belief that Mr Habibie may be forced by his own Golkar Party to relinquish his bid for re-election when members of the upper house convene next month. The chamber will have two main tasks at the session: picking a new president in November and endorsing the abandonment of East Timor, annexed by Indonesia in 1976. If a serious political crisis does take hold, that schedule of vital votes could be thrown in doubt. Among those reportedly positioning themselves to replace Mr Habibie as Golkar's presidential nominee, is the army chief, General Wiranto.

Jakarta, meanwhile, was again rocked yesterday by street demonstrations. Stones were hurled at police outside the parliament building when about 1,700 students marched to protest against a draft law that would give the military new powers to suppress unrest in the country.

President Habibie's difficulties are being compounded by almost daily revelations in the so-called Bank Bali scandal. The affair centres on allegations that officials at the bank paid about $70 million (pounds 43m) in illegal kick-backs to senior politicians for helping to recover loans extended to other banks shut down by the government. Among those accused of receiving the illicit funds are officials connected with Mr Habibie's re-election campaign.

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