Australian troops kill three in East Timor; Tensions up as assembly in Indonesia prepares to vote on area's freedom


JAKARTA, Indonesia -- In the sharpest clash of their three-week deployment in East Timor, Australian troops reported yesterday that they were ambushed and pinned down by armed men and that they killed three of their attackers before being rescued by helicopter.

The firefight was a sign of increasing conflicts in the remote territory as the Indonesian National Assembly prepares to vote on whether to accept East Timor's decision six weeks ago to break away and become an independent nation.

The mood in the assembly is defiant, defensive and sentimental about the loss of the former Portuguese colony, which Indonesia invaded in 1975 and annexed as its 27th province. But most analysts here say that when the vote is taken, probably early this week, the assembly will accept East Timor's independence.

"What are they going to do, send more troops to the island? I think that's impossible," said Goenawan Mohamad, a leading editor and political commentator. One other possibility is that the legislature could delay a vote to save face.

Goenawan said that for 24 years, Indonesians had been "brainwashed" about East Timor and that it is easy for politicians to rouse a nationalist backlash on the issue.

Nevertheless, East Timor is a relatively small issue for the assembly, which is preparing to elect Indonesia's next president Wednesday, said a former Cabinet minister, Sarwono Kusumaatmadja.

"People are not angry about the separation itself, and I don't think any political party intends to prolong the issue," he said. "But the issue is being used now to attack Habibie."

President B. J. Habibie, who is campaigning within the assembly to be elected to a full five-year term, made a surprise unilateral offer of independence to East Timor early this year, ignoring warnings made by pro-independence leaders that more time was needed to calm the situation.

When the people of East Timor voted by nearly 90 percent on Aug. 30 to break from Indonesia, armed militias created and supported by the Indonesian military rampaged though the territory, driving much of the population from their homes and leveling almost all cities and towns.

This led to the creation of a multinational peacekeeping force, dominated by Australian troops, which entered East Timor on Sept. 21. Since then, the area has been mostly pacified, allowing aid to reach a growing number of displaced people.

But in the past week, peacekeeping patrols in the western part of the territory have clashed several times with small militia groups.

In yesterday's hourlong firefight, an Australian officer said, three militia members were wounded in addition to those killed, but no Australians were hurt. The officer, Col. Mark Kelly, said the engagement took place 10 miles from the border with West Timor, which is part of Indonesia and a staging ground for the militias.

"I think the tactics they're employing show a level of training, a level of aggression," he said from Dili, East Timor's capital, suggesting that the Indonesian military was involved.

In Jakarta, the military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Sudrajat, said the encounter was being investigated. But he denied that the Indonesian military was responsible for militia activities. "That accusation isn't true at all," he said. "The Indonesian military is in no position to set up a militia."

Pub Date: 10/17/99

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