The Australian military is poised with planes and a fast-moving transport ship to move about 2,000 soldiers and light armored vehicles into East Timor within 72 hours of receiving U.N. authorization for an international peacekeeping force in the battered Indonesian territory.
While Australia is counting on extensive support from the United States and a host of Asian countries as the force takes shape, the opening phase of the mission will be carried out overwhelmingly by Australians, officials from Australia and other countries said.
Indonesian President B.J. Habibie's late-night assent to an international force to rescue East Timor from anti-independence marauders who have overwhelmed it in the past two weeks was hailed by President Clinton as a welcome sign that clears the way for outside intervention. But U.S. and Australian officials said that meetings scheduled today at the United Nations in New York are critical to making clear whether the Indonesians will try to impose conditions on the force.
Australian officials said they, too, welcome Asian participation but that they clearly expect to lead the force. As a practical matter, the Australians are the nation by far the most capable of moving with sufficient haste to reverse East Timor's plunge into violence. The city of Darwin in northern Australia lies fewer than 500 miles from Dili, the East Timor capital.
An Australian official here for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum said military forces have been "in an advanced state of readiness" for several days. A fast-moving catamaran docked in Darwin carries 500 troops and can cross the sea to East Timor within hours, the official said, adding that the Australian air force also is ready to move troops and equipment quickly.
The Australians have won a pledge from Malaysia to contribute about 2,000 troops to the peacekeeping force, officials said, as well as for a smaller but "substantial" force from Thailand. Other nations that told the Australians they are willing to contribute troops include Singapore, the Philippines, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
The United States--after intensive lobbying by the Australians overcame initial reluctance at the Pentagon--is ready to commit a number military personnel "in the hundreds, not thousands" to support the operation, a senior White House official said. The most visible U.S. contribution would be its airlift equipment--the transport jets that will bring U.N. troops to East Timor and the helicopters that will ferry them around the territory. Clinton said this morning that the U.S. role would also include "communications, intelligence, and perhaps . . . engineering work."
Clinton said that he, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and White House chief of staff John D. Podesta have been consulting with members of Congress in recent days to seek political support for the operation.
At a Sunday night dinner here for the APEC leaders, Clinton huddled with Australian Prime Minister John Howard for the latest update on the East Timor situation. Howard had just been briefed by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, who had been on the phone with Habibie some hours before his statement.
The diplomatic effort now moves to New York. Both the Indonesian and Australian foreign ministers were on their way to the United Nations this morning, but U.N. sources said that even under the most optimistic scenario it is not likely that a resolution authorizing a peace force could come before Tuesday.
Australian officials, as well as White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, said that a cooperative arrangement between the Indonesian military and the peace force would be welcome, as long as clear lines of authority are established with Australian officers in charge. A senior White House official said he was encouraged by the fact that Habibie did not offer any criticism of an Australian-led force, as opposed to one led by Asians, in his statement Sunday.
"My view is that we should work with the Indonesians in a cooperative fashion," Clinton told reporters. "Perhaps they should have some parallel presence even, but they should not be able to say who is in or not in the force and what the structure of the force will be."