Nine warships left this northern Australian harbor today for East Timor, but the first troops appear unlikely to land in the devastated Indonesian territory until Monday.
The ships, including troop transports, destroyers and missile frigates, left to scattered applause and cheers of a small crowd gathered at the harbor.
The 360-mile voyage would put the ships off Dili, the East Timor capital, soon after the commander of the multinational force, Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, flies in to meet with Indonesian military officials to coordinate the U.N.-sanctioned peacekeeping mission.
There was no indication why Cosgrove did not go to Dili today as planned, nor what the delay has been in getting the multinational force to East Timor, which has been wracked by violence from marauding militias backed by army troops since its residents voted overwhelmingly to secede from Indonesia last month.
[In the first official confirmation of the force's plans, British Brigadier David Richards told Reuters on Sunday the troops would move in on Monday after a visit to Dili on Sunday by Cosgrove.]
Australian military officials have imposed an information blackout on ship movements, and would not say how many troops are aboard the vessels. Australia has said it is ready to send in the first 2,000 of its 4,500 soldiers, which will be the largest contingent of the 7,000-member multinational force.
About 250 British army Gurkhas also have joined the force, and nearly two dozen other nations are expected to contribute personnel and equipment. The first 13 U.S. Marines arrived in Australia today with trucks and supplies from their base in Okinawa, Japan, to set up a command post for the 200-member U.S. contingent.
The U.N. World Food Program continued its air drops of rice and blankets today, and is expected soon to begin dropping thousands of high-protein biscuits to refugees who fled into the hills of East Timor to escape the violence.
Although the rampaging militias were reported to be withdrawing to western Timor, the United Nations and International Red Cross said massive numbers of hungry refugees were afraid to emerge from hiding.
When they do come out, they will find Dili in shambles, with most of its buildings reportedly burned or wrecked, and no electricity, water or food available.
"There are houses still burning," said U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst. "There are still militias in the area. There are a few gunshots, but apart from that, I haven't heard of any more violence."
Ian Martin, the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in East Timor, said today in Darwin that he expects his staff will have to set up a civil administration quickly to restore basic services.
"The U.N. will have to fill in the vacuum," he said. "This sucks in the U.N. much faster" than planned. After the referendum, the United Nations had expected to assume civil functions from Indonesia gradually, and turn them over to East Timorese as they established a government.
That will have to be accelerated, Martin said. For example, "there will be a law-and-order vacuum. We will have to train a police force quickly."
CAPTION: Bearing peacekeeping troops, Australian naval ships leave from Darwin.