The announcement by Indonesian President B. J. Habibie that his government will accept an international military force in East Timor is welcome, but it's hardly cause for celebration. The situation within the territory remains horrific as Indonesian forces continue their slaughter and destruction. And it could get much worse before effective international assistance is in place: There are credible fears that Indonesia's military will intensify its campaign of terror before the United Nations-mandated force arrives.

The United Nations' ruling powers must thus pressure Jakarta to accept terms that will ensure a strong mandate for the international force, one that will not allow the Indonesian military (TNI) any effective participation. The United States, given its massive support for Indonesia's brutal military over the past three decades, has an obligation to ensure this outcome.

Unfortunately, the Clinton administration and some of its allies seem favorably disposed toward Indonesia's call for the United Nations-led force to "assist" the TNI in reasserting control. Britain's U.N. ambassador, Jeremy Greenstock, for example, has publicly suggested that there will probably be separate international and Indonesian commands and no overall commander of the force.

This is a very dangerous proposition. As the current slaughter illustrates, there is no reason to trust the Indonesian military. On the contrary, there is ample documentation to demonstrate that the military establishment itself, rather than "rogue elements" within it, is directly responsible for the carnage and destruction that have occurred over the past 10 days. Numerous eyewitnesses have reported that uniformed TNI troops are participating directly in the killings and the destruction. And there is little question that Indonesian military officers control the so-called militia. This should not be surprising: This is the same military responsible for the deaths of well over 200,000 East Timorese since its bloody 1975 invasion of the former Portuguese colony.

As a series of U.N. General Assembly and Security Council resolutions have made clear, Indonesia's presence in East Timor is illegitimate. Jakarta has no legal basis for demanding anything regarding East Timor. Its latest wave of terror only reinforces the necessity of an immediate Indonesian military withdrawal from East Timor. Ensuring this should be one of the principal goals of the U.N.-led force.

In addition, the international troops should oversee the disarmament and demobilization of all paramilitary groups. As part of this effort, the United Nations should work to identify and arrest militia members and TNI personnel guilty of atrocities for a future international war crimes tribunal, as called for by U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson.

The U.N. force is an immediate and dire necessity in the current context in East Timor. Reports from inside the territory indicate that Indonesian forces have killed thousands. And tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of people have fled into the mountains. As it is the dry season, there is little for them to eat and drink. Indonesian troops and their paramilitaries have burned and destroyed most of the country's food stores.

The TNI and its paramilitaries have also destroyed the infrastructure in all the major towns of East Timor. There are no clinics or hospitals left standing. They have burned many of the crops and killed much of the livestock. There are fears of mass starvation and disease.

In addition, more than 100,000 East Timorese are no longer in the territory, many forcibly evacuated by the TNI to various parts of Indonesia. Most of the displaced persons are in neighboring West Timor, a large percentage of them languishing in concentration-like camps policed and terrorized by militia groups and the Indonesian military. Already there are credible reports of killings of East Timorese refugees there. And paramilitaries have threatened and attacked foreign journalists and international aid workers, including a team from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, trying to gain access to the camps.

Any international agreement for a U.N.-led military force must guarantee full, free and safe access for international humanitarian agencies to all East Timorese, including those in Indonesia proper. The United Nations must also ensure that all displaced persons are safe from physical attacks and other forms of violence. Finally, the international community must guarantee the right of return to their homes of all displaced East Timorese.

Unless an effective U.N.-led force and humanitarian organizations are quickly able to enter East Timor and gain access to refugee concentrations in East Timor and Indonesia, there is a good chance few people will be left in the territory to save.

Matthew Jardine is a writer who just returned from two months in East Timor.