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Timor Troops - For How Long? How Much Resistance?

Janes Defence Weekly is reporting the around 8,000 strong UN force (INTERFET) being deployed to East Timor can expect to be there for two years. What combat opposition are they likely to encounter? John Howard reports.

Rui Lopes could count former president Suharto's son-in-law, Prabowo Subianto, and General Gleny in Jakarta among his closest friends.

They have been fighting and working together since the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. Since 1985, Mr Lopes, 47, had also been working for Xanana Gusmao's resistance guerillas.

Last night, he revealed the extent of the Indonesian military's plans for the political cleansing of East Timor, and for the arrival of foreign peacekeepers.

While earlier "reconciliation" meetings were being organised throughout East Timor between pro-Jakarta militia chiefs and bishiops and pro-independence leaders, a massive military build-up was taking place over the border.

He said a further 20 battalions - a total of 15,000 soldiers - were stationed in West Timor in June. This was in addition to the around 8,000 troops and 21,000 militia-members already in East Timor.

There has never been international verification of troop or militia numbers or monitoring of previously claimed troop withdrawals.

Mr Lopes said some troops were stationed in Tamrasi and had a secret base in a mountain called Laser, which the Australian military used as a clandestine refuge during World War II.

The Indonesian military brought in a sophisticated radar from Bandung, West Java, that could track ships in the South Sea. Marines and tanks were taken to the Indonesian island of Kisar, off the eastern tip of East Timor. These had now been driven up through Lospalos in East Timor.

"They prepared all this," he said, "because they knew the Australians would intervene." A strategic triangle was set up.

There were also bases at Balibo on the West Timor border; Kupang, the West Timor capital, would be used for the refugees coming in after the cleansing; and military training was carried out in Atambua, just inside West Timor.

Mr Lopes had arrived in Macau after fleeing Jakarta.

Of course, the Indonesian military command might be much more wily than this and withdraw all their troops from East Timor into West Timor and conduct across border counter-insurgency operations. We already know that unless Indonesia gives permission, INTERFET troops are not permitted to enter West Timor. In which case, INTERFET could be in East Timor for years.

But Indonesia is holding its first free elections in more than four decades in November and that could change everything.

It would be the ultimate irony if the end result saw its military chief now called, "Wily Wiranto," elected president. That prospect is now much closer to reality following reports that General Wiranto plans to step down from his post to contest the presidency and that he is now likely to fire two of his subordinates closely involved in the East Timor bloodshed. There is no doubt this powerful military leader harbours political ambitions.

The discrediting of B.J. Habibie by the bloodshed in East Timor and the involvement of his close friends in the Bank Bali scandal present opportunities too good to miss. Already there are reports that these events have prompted the ruling Golkar party to consider dumping him for another presidential candidate.

If discrediting Mr Habibie was a consideration, then the military's repeated failure to restore law and order in East Timor becomes more explicable. So too does General Wiranto's sudden conversion to supporting an international peacekeeping force.

Australia's leadership of INTERFET also represents a chance for Jakarta's leaders to condemn the move at will for domestic political gain and make Australia an ideal scapegoat.

General Wiranto is often portrayed as a relative moderate. It is true he played a key role in last year's overthrow of former president Suharto. He has also reduced the military's political role and apologised for atrocities committed elsewhere in Indonesia.

But when political ambitions and military power are allowed to become so entwined it makes General Wiranto quite the wrong man to become president.


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