Indonesian troops and their surrogate militias are packing up and withdrawing from East Timor before this weekend's expected arrival of a multinational peacekeeping force, according to Indonesia's local military commander.
The East Timor commander, Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri, said that 3,500 to 4,000 troops have already pulled out. Echoing his superiors in Jakarta, he said the Indonesian military would cooperate with the U.N.-backed force. Reports from western Timor, the other part of the Indonesian island, said trucks carrying soldiers were rumbling out of East Timor.
In Dili, East Timor's ravaged capital, militiamen were said to be disappearing from the streets, and the Indonesian military was clearing away some of the debris and offering food to people who were displaced by a two-week rampage by the military and militias that erupted after residents voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia.
Indonesian troops were seen loading weapons and equipment onto trucks and ships to depart East Timor, a former Portuguese colony occupied by Indonesia since 1975.
Reflecting a calmer situation, the first of the multinational force to land in East Timor apparently will not be armed marines, but the force's commander, Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, who said he would go to Dili Saturday to confer with the Indonesian military.
[On Saturday, Indonesian military spokesman Willem Rampangilei said that the U.N. advance team was expected to arrive on Sunday.]
While specifics are being worked out, the Australian-led force continues to assemble in Darwin. Nearly 20 countries are expected to participate in the mission, and President Clinton said in Washington that United States personnel will number about 200, many of them lending air and communications support. "I have decided to contribute to the force in a limited but essential way," Clinton said.
Australian commanders said the force will be prepared to fight if necessary, but the movements of militia and military in Timor may indicate a decision on the part of army troops and militiamen to withdraw rather than resist.
The Indonesian military commander, Gen. Wiranto, has said about 9,000 Indonesian troops will remain in East Timor--about half the force there now--to work with the international troops.
If there is no armed resistance, the job of the multinational force will quickly turn to humanitarian aid for the thousands of East Timorese who fled the violence that followed the referendum.
The United Nations and private relief workers, who will follow the troops into the territory, will have to provide food and shelter to those who have lost their homes. And they must quickly rebuild the infrastructure of Dili and other towns that have been burned and devastated.
CNN correspondent Maria Ressa reported from Dili today that there is no electricity, food or water in the pillaged city. She said there still was sporadic gunfire and that some fires were still burning, but otherwise the city seemed quiet.
"There isn't much left, and it's difficult for anyone to survive," she said.
Some Indonesian soldiers have begun distributing food and medicine, but Ressa reported that uprooted residents were skeptical of the military. Witnesses to the most recent violence say the soldiers acted in concert with the militias; both are vehement opponents of independence for East Timor.
An Australian plane loaded with supplies from the World Food Program dropped rice and blankets to East Timorese hiding in the hills today, and aid officials said they expect to continue the operation for several days.
Many men fled to the hilly regions of East Timor to escape the militias in the city. U.N. reports say they have been scavenging for food and living on roots.
The movement of the Indonesian soldiers and some of the militias toward western Timor increased concern that that region will become a stronghold of resistance to an independent East Timor.
More than 100,000 displaced East Timorese are in camps in western Timor that are largely controlled by the militias. Foreigners and international aid representatives have not been permitted into the camps, but the Indonesian government today promised that the United Nations would be given access.
Local workers of UNICEF, the U.N. children's fund, have been in the camps, but representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees were attacked last week when they tried to visit a camp in western Timor.
Kris Janowski of the U.N. refugee agency in Geneva reported that "there is no shelter, food or medicine. Water is a problem. In such a situation there are deaths every day among infants, the sick and elderly."