As a large contingent of Indonesian troops marched to the port to withdraw from East Timor today, the international peacekeeping force here tightened its control of this capital city.
Helicopters swooped low and soldiers of the Australian-led force went door to door, routing pro-Indonesian militias. The peacekeepers' show of force emboldened East Timorese residents, as youths reclaimed the streets shouting "Viva independence!"
Waving flags and holding long-banned photos of independence leaders, the youths reveled in the moment that had been denied by the rampage of violence that erupted after the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly last month to secede from Indonesia.
At a news conference, Indonesia's local military commander promised to give full control of East Timor next week to Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, the Australian commander of the international force that landed here Monday.
But the roar of one Blackhawk helicopter after another skimming low over the rooftops nearly drowned out Gen. Kiki Syahnakri's words and was evidence that control of the city was being taken rather than given.
On the streets below the Indonesian army barracks where Syahnakri spoke, 1,000 Australian-led troops moved through the city center. In full combat gear, they stormed the buildings that remain standing and seized suspected militiamen at gunpoint.
The helicopters hovered with their side doors open and machine guns manned, and armored personnel carriers rumbled into intersections. By day's end, the multinational force had moved out from the few areas it has controlled here in the capital since Monday and secured a major part of the city that had remained lawless after nightfall.
"Our purpose was to start to indicate to the [refugees] in the hills that the environment is safe to return to Dili," said Australian Lt. Col. Nick Welch, the commander of the operation. "Our message to the militia is, 'You think you control the area, but in reality, it is in our control.' "
In fact, the impressive show of force was partly for intimidation purposes. The only parts of East Timor where the multinational force has taken control are Dili and a beachhead 70 miles to the east in Baukau. Large portions of the countryside remain vulnerable to violence by the retreating militias and humiliated Indonesian troops. Tens of thousands of refugees remain in hiding in the hills, unsure it is safe to come out.
But today's events had the appearance of historic symbolism. Indonesian troops first invaded East Timor in 1975, using landing ships near the present port, and today's large contingent left from the same port on an ocean liner.
Most countries have refused to recognize Indonesia's sovereignty over the former Portuguese colony, renowned for its coffee plantations, and advocates of independence struggled through two bloody decades to win the Aug. 30 referendum.
The departure of its troops was an ignominious moment for the Indonesian army, which opposed independence for East Timor and recruited the militias to try to intimidate voters with violence. When that failed strikingly--78.5 percent voted for independence--the militias and the army went on a murderous rampage.
Syahnakri said about 4,500 Indonesian troops--from a high of 21,000--will remain in East Timor, and that number will be reduced "gradually" before the Indonesian parliament votes on ratification of the referendum results in November. But Cosgrove pointedly said he expects them to have little visibility and no role beyond guarding their own barracks and headquarters.
Today's news conference almost seemed designed to add to the military embarrassment. Cosgrove sat stone-faced as Syahnakri tried to field questions from Western reporters, even as the multinational military operation proceeded around the building.
Syahnakri acknowledged that despite the declaration of martial law after the vote in East Timor, the violence had continued and "I recognize that I cannot fully control all the situation."
Under questioning, he also admitted that the apparent involvement of Indonesian soldiers in an attack on two journalists this week "was really embarrassing to us." The journalists were uninjured, although their driver was blinded in one eye with a rifle butt and an interpreter is missing. In a separate incident Tuesday, a Dutch journalist was killed, and militia snipers are suspected in the slaying.
Australian peacekeepers said they have detained some suspected militiamen for questioning. At one vacant building, soldiers in armored vests and carrying automatic rifles flushed out three men. They pinned them to the ground on their stomachs, handcuffed them behind their backs and made them squat.
A small crowd gathered, and several chanted, "militia, militia." One man tried to poke the prisoners with a stick before they were hauled away by soldiers.
Australian military officials also announced the arrest of Caitano Da Silva, whom they described as a platoon commander for Aitarak, one of the most violent of the militias.
"He's a special case, a high-profile detainee," and will not be turned over to civilian authorities like others apprehended, a spokesman said. A source said Da Silva is on a list of people who are wanted for possible trial for crimes against humanity.
Many militiamen are reported to be heading toward western Timor, where some observers fear they will establish a guerrilla base to continue opposition to an independent East Timor.
The multinational force has not rushed to the border, although Col. Mark Kelly, the force's chief of staff, insisted that destination is "part of our ongoing plan."
In another development, the father of independence leader Xanana Gusmao, who had been reported killed in the recent violence, turned up unharmed after being sheltered with his wife at a convent near Dili.
At 5 p.m., the departing Indonesian troops marched in a smart column to the port, and boarded a brightly lighted liner. Australian troops quickly seized the post they had vacated and found pro-militia graffiti and evidence of looting--one cabinet had a large blue-and-white UNICEF emblem on it.
Moments after the soldiers departed, a squadron of buzzing motorcycles and bicycles burst onto the street, their riders carrying independence banners and shouting slogans of liberation. A truck teetering with other youths followed, a joyous send-off to the Indonesians.
"This is our day! Today is the day for our independence!" shouted one young man over the tumult.
The jubilation even brought smiles to the usually stolid Australian soldiers posted nearby.
"We're away from our families to help their families, but we're glad to do this when you see how happy these people are," said one soldier. "This is the first time in a long time they have been able to go up and down these streets and celebrate like that. I just hope it lasts."