Peace force rounds up militia suspects in Dili

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INTERNATIONAL TROOPS converged on the centre of Dili in armoured cars and helicopters yesterday, in the multinational peace-keeping force's first mass operation against East Timor's army-backed militias.

Helicopters were hovering over the capital late last night as Australian infantrymen continued house-to-house searches, arresting suspected militiamen, including a senior commander. The suspects were forced to lie on the ground with rifles pointed at their backs after the Australian soldiers entered their hide-outs. Officers of the International Force East Timor (Interfet) said that a number of men in paramilitary dress had been arrested and weapons had been seized, including machetes and guns.

"We're looking for people with the capability to impede our mission, which is to provide security for the people of East Timor," said Brigadier Mark Evans, the land commander of Interfet. "We're endeavouring to remove any thugs or vandals from the area."

Late on Wednesday, Interfet troops arrested Caetano da Silva, a self- styled platoon commander of the Aitarak militia which was responsible for some of the worst atrocities in the run-up to last month's referendum on independence. "This is the most significant detention we've made in this operation," said Colonel Mark Kelly, the Interfet chief of staff. "The message is: you cannot run, you cannot hide, justice is here."

An Australian naval catamaran docked at Dili yesterday, bearing more reinforcements, including 127 Filipino soldiers, the first significant number of Asian troops to be dispatched to East Timor. "Our purpose is to indicate to the people living in the hills that the environment is safe to return to Dili," said Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Welch, who commanded the search operation. "Our message to the militia is, `You think you control the area but in reality, it is in our control'."

But five days after its arrival, Interfet has established itself in only a tiny fraction of the territory; large areas remain under the control of the militias. Yesterday, a United Nations reconnaissance team flew over the remote eastern reaches of the island and reported devastation in towns and cities. Viewed from the air, the town of Lospalos is 90 per cent fire damaged, three-quarters of Viqueque is destroyed, as are one- fifth of houses in Manatuto.

On the hills overlooking Dili, a villa formerly used by the governor of East Timor was burning, after being set alight by the evacuating Indonesian armed forces (TNI). Several military barracks have already been burnt, and yesterday Australian soldiers taking over an army compound discovered barrels of oil with fuses attached to them, apparently in preparation for a similar act of arson.

All day, Indonesian soldiers marched through Dili towards the port where they boarded a liner. At a press conference in his headquarters, the Indonesian military commander of East Timor, Major-General Kiki Syahnakri, said that most of his troops would be evacuated by the end of today, leaving a core force of 4,500. As he spoke, seated alongside the Australian commander, Major-General Peter Cosgrove, Australian helicopters buzzed overhead and smoke from burning buildings drifted through the windows.

Maj-Gen Cosgrove also said he had full confidence in Thailand's contribution to Interfet, despite reports of a rift with the country that has deputy command of the force. A senior Thai Defence Ministry official said yesterday that Thailand was alarmed by television pictures showing Australian soldiers pointing guns at the heads of militia suspects. The source, who did not want to be identified, said Thai troops planned to take a more "softly- softly" approach when they were deployed next month. "I have never had any doubts about them. Thailand is an enormous friend of everybody in the region," Maj-Gen Cosgrove said.

t The US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, will visit Indonesia next week for talks with government leaders on the violence in East Timor and to press for military and democratic reforms in Jakarta, the Pentagon said yesterday.