After weeks of increasing tension on the Indonesian side of the border in Timor, at least four United Nations workers were killed by rioting pro-Jakarta militiamen in West Timor yesterday, senior UN officials said.
In answer to an unprecedented request for assistance by beleaguered Indonesian security forces, three New Zealand Air Force helicopters attached to the UN peacekeeping force in East Timor flew into riot-torn Atambua to evacuate 42 UN staff, including foreigners and local employees. By nightfall, all had been evacuated to a nearby Australian Army base in East Timor. UN officials said last night another 28 East Timorese aid-agency workers had also requested evacuation.
According to UN military sources, the violent death Tuesday in Betum district of a pro-integration leader, Olivio Mendoza Moruk, one of 19 people named by Indonesian authorities Friday for involvement in last year's bloodbath in East Timor, was the trigger for yesterday's violence. Gangs wrecked the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Atambua, one of the few foreign aid agencies still operating in West Timor.
With Jakarta now openly talking about rolling up their welcome mat, the hard-core militia leadership is becoming increasingly desperate about its future survival prospects, say military and diplomatic sources in East Timor.
After the territory's pro-independence referendum one year ago, the pro-integration militias who retreated to West Timor were treated as heroes who had lost the vote. Now they control refugee camps populated by more than 100,000 East Timorese, and continuing violence has increased international pressure on Indonesia to rein in the militias.
Hundreds of refugees had been voluntarily crossing the border every week under the UN-supervised repatriation program. But militia threats and intimidation against refugees and UN staff have dried up the flow of returnees.
Australian and New Zealand military- intelligence sources estimate no more than 100 hard-line, well-trained and well-armed militia leaders control as many as 1,000 less-motivated militiamen, many of whom are not responsible for blood crimes and some of whom are now seeking resettlement in East Timor. Indonesian authorities have promised the camps will be closed down within three to six months, but militia activity has thwarted past attempts.
Earlier on Wednesday, senior UN military officials said that Indonesian security forces had lost control of the situation in Atambua, a center of pro-integration activity.
"TNI [Indonesian military] appear to be struggling to control the situation. Foreign NGOs and aid workers are being threatened. We are working with TNI to extract all foreign workers in the area," said Capt. Dan Hurren, military spokesman for UN Sector West, which is in charge of the border area.
Two weeks ago, the UN refugee agency temporarily shut down its West Timor humanitarian operation in the provincial capital of Kupang, on the far west end of the island, after three workers were injured in militia attacks. In July and August, two UN peacekeepers were killed in East Timor by militiamen. UNHCR spokesman in Dili, Joseph Yeo, said yesterday that Kupang operations would be closed down again, fearing a spillover of violence from Atambua.
In Jakarta, the head of a leading Indonesian nongovernmental organization on East Timor also said the action was linked to the attorney general's office naming of the 19 suspects in last year's mass violence in the former Portuguese colony.
"The Indonesian government must take responsibility," says Coki Naipospos, chairman of Solidamor. "They must crush the militia and they must take them to court. The military must be thorough and totally disarm them. The militias are making a response to pressure the government. If Indonesia does not act thoroughly the same thing is going to happen again."
But, says Sulaiman Abdulmanan, information director at the Foreign Ministry in Jakarta, the task is not so easy. Indonesia cannot solve the problem alone and is struggling to keep order. Help from the UN Transitional Force in East Timor (UNTAET) and other outside bodies will be needed to ensure the refugees' safe and orderly return.
"People ask: Why can't we control the militia?" says Mr. Sulaiman. But "they are not visible as militia. They are there as refugees. They don't always carry weapons. They can hide [them]." This week, decisionmaking is being hampered by the fact that President Abdurrahman Wahid and Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab are both abroad, attending the UN Millennium Summit in New York, says Sulaiman.
A prerequisite for the UN intervention yesterday was that Indonesian security forces guarantee a safe landing zone for the helicopters when they arrived in Atambua. "This incident illustrates well the need for TNI and UN peacekeeping force cooperation; it goes both ways," says Hurren. "We have shown the TNI that we are prepared to provide assistance for border security and this demonstrates our concern with the security situation in West Timor. A long-term solution requires stability on both sides of the border."
*Chris McCall in Jakarta contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society