AS AN international peacekeeping force was preparing to sail from Darwin, Australia, to East Timor, the commanding Indonesian officer in the province said his 9,000 troops would withdraw peacefully as the foreign soldiers landed.
"Once they get in I will pull out. I hope the process will not take more than one week," Major-General Kiki Syahnakri said in the capital, Dili, last night. His pledge reverses policy by Jakarta. It had vowed to keep forces in the province until its formal handover to a United Nations administration, probably in November.
If the promise is kept, it may ease concern about the kind of opposition the peace force may meet once ashore. Its soldiers, mostly Australian at the outset, with 250 British Army Gurkhas, could face resistance from pro-Jakarta militias that have been rampaging in the province since it voted for independence in a referendum on 30 August.
An announcement in Darwin said that Thailand would assume deputy command of the force, which is expected to number about 8,000 soldiers. The decision reflects concern about anti-Australian sentiment in Indonesia.
There was still no sign last night of a start to airdrops of food over the interior of East Timor, where 200,000 civilians are believed to be hiding from the militias in increasingly squalid conditions. Australian officials said they had not received permission from Jakarta to begin the drops.
Fears were growing for tens of thousands in refugee camps in West Timor. Military-backed militias have moved there from East Timor and are terrorising those who fled across the border. Catholic missionaries said the militias were combing refugee camps and rounding up suspected pro-independence supporters.
"Gunshots can be heard everywhere, day and night, and the people are scared," said Monsignor Anton Pain Radu, Bishop of Atambua, near the border with East Timor. Aid agencies said the refugees, mostly women and children, were vulnerable not only to hunger and disease but also to the militias, who could be tempted to hold them hostage to gain tactical leverage.
Oxfam International said it was alarmed that there was no provision in the UN resolution for an international presence in West Timor.
The Australian commander of the peace force, Major- General Peter Cosgrove, said the priority on landing would be securing Dili, the ruined UN compound and surrounding countryside. Restoring law and order in all the territory could take months. He was confident that recent bellicose statements by the militias - directed at Australian soldiers particularly - was no more than rhetoric. "The best thing for the militia would be to surrender their weapons and to become law-abiding East Timorese."
The force commanders are unlikely to take at face value the pledge of an Indonesian withdrawal until they see it implemented. The army has a history of failed promises and has been attacked for assisting and arming the militias in their campaign of terror.
Yesterday Indonesian officials said they were suspending a security pact signed with Australia four years ago. "Indonesia deeply regrets Australia's attitude, which has damaged the bilateral agreement," said Feisal Tanjung, Coordinating Minister for Political Affairs.
Australia was again the target of slogans paraded bydemonstrators in Jakarta. In a peaceful protest which started outside the UN offices, the marchers carried banners with such messages as: "Australian soldiers. Welcome to East Timor. Graves have been prepared for you. Rest in Hell".
Reports from Dili suggested most of the militias have left the city, and that it is mostly calm. In an apparent gesture of conciliation, the army sent soldiers to sweep streets and hand out rice to hungry refugees.
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