Indonesia's military chief, Gen. Wiranto, conceded today that his soldiers in violence-wracked East Timor have aligned with rampaging militiamen and, apparently reversing himself under intense international pressure, opened the door to "accelerated deployment" of foreign troops to bring order to the ravaged territory.
Diplomats here depicted Wiranto's statement as the first movement after days of defiance from Jakarta as calls mounted for international peacekeepers to stop the violence that has engulfed East Timor since an overwhelming majority of its 800,000 people voted for independence in a U.N.-sponsored referendum Aug. 30.
"There seem to be indications that there may be a shift in the Indonesian position," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said at his New York headquarters. "Yesterday, Gen. Wiranto was saying, `in three months' time.' Today, he seems to have softened his position, indicating that they may allow the peacekeepers to go in earlier."
President Clinton, attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Auckland, New Zealand, also predicted Indonesia will allow an international peacekeeping force to enter East Timor soon. "I think you'll see a development there in the next couple of days," he told reporters. "I think something will happen. I'll be surprised if it doesn't."
[In a speech Sunday, Clinton again urged Indonesia's rulers to cooperate with the United Nations and allow East Timorese refugees to return home right away. "The eyes of the world are on that tiny place and these poor, innocent, suffering people," he said, adding that Jakarta "must allow an international force to help restore security."]
Only hours after his first statement, Wiranto said that Indonesia will consider new "security cooperation" in Timor, but without repeating his support for "accelerated deployment" of peacekeepers. And at the United Nations, Indonesian Ambassador Makarim Wibisono ruled out foreign troops for now. Despite the confusion, diplomats here said Wiranto seemed to be on the verge of accepting what governments around the world have been demanding with increasing intensity.
Wiranto, who visited East Timor's capital, Dili, with a high-level U.N. delegation today, was described as shocked at the level of destruction wrought by his soldiers, who rampaged for a week alongside pro-Indonesian militias outraged by the independence vote. Hundreds, if not thousands, are believed to have been killed, including priests and nuns.
The central business district has been reduced to ruins. Houses have been burned and looted. The city has been largely emptied of its population. Buildings left untouched were mostly those flying the red-and-white Indonesian flag as a form of protection against the marauders. Even a heavy military presence and a quick attempt to clean up debris could not hide the devastation from those who toured the scene.
The guns were quiet as the U.N. visitors toured the city. But a few armed militiamen swaggered through the streets, and Indonesian troops did nothing to stop them.
Senior Indonesian officials, including Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, had earlier blamed "rogue elements" in the military, including locally recruited East Timorese soldiers and policemen, for aiding in the violence. But today, Wiranto appeared to concede that his command in East Timor has broken down and that some troops' loyalty is to the militias.
"They have very close ties to the people," Wiranto said in a television interview. "I can understand that it is really hard for them to shoot their own people, who are regarded as brothers in arms and are not really criminals."
Faced with that reality -- and international pressure -- Wiranto made an about-face. "The offer of an accelerated deployment of international peacekeepers must be considered an option by the Indonesian government, and I will bring my report to the president tomorrow," he said.
He gave no timetable, but many officials said Indonesia is unlikely to hold out longer under the intense pressure that risks isolating the world's fourth-largest country.
The White House announced a formal suspension of about $2.5 million in direct military assistance to Indonesia and $40 million in commercial sales. Britain also piled on, with Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announcing suspension of a deal to sell nine Hawk ground attack planes and expressing support for a European Union arms embargo.
Country after country joined the condemnations at a Security Council meeting in New York. The U.S. delegate, Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, warned that Indonesia was reaching "the point of no return" in its refusal to allow an international peace force to enter East Timor.
As Wiranto signaled new flexibility, other Indonesian officials also showed signs of being ready to accept foreign troops. Indonesia's top economics minister, Ginandjar Kartasasmita, pleaded in Auckland for "understanding, and some moral support," from other countries. He said peacekeepers are an option, but they should have a significant Asian component because of nationalist sensibilities here.
Seven nations have committed troops to an East Timor force, to be led by Australia. The government in Canberra has offered 4,500 soldiers, and commitments have come from New Zealand, Canada, Malaysia, the Philippines and Portugal, East Timor's former colonial ruler. Britain has put 250 Nepalese Gurkhas, based in Brunei, on standby.
A 10-member U.S. military team went to Australia Friday to help plan for moving a force into East Timor. The Pentagon has said the United States will not contribute combat troops but will deploy some equipment and personnel for transportation and intelligence. Clinton said his discussions with Australia on a potential U.S. contribution to an international force have focused on "providing some of the things that only we can provide, probably, like extensive airlift support to bring troops from other countries, primarily of Asia, into the theater."
Accepting foreign troops into East Timor while it is still a territory of Indonesia would amount to a humiliation for the government and the military. It could further provoke a nationalist backlash.
Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly is scheduled to meet in October and November to elect a new president. That same session will have to ratify East Timor's independence vote, after which the territory would revert to U.N. administration until elections could be held.
Staff writers John F. Harris in Auckland and Roberto Suro in Washington contributed to this report.