The commander of the Indonesian military in East Timor departed today, leaving security in peacekeeping force that controls only a small part of the province.
Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri left behind a token force of 1,500 Indonesian soldiers who will guard army facilities at least until November, when Indonesia's parliament is expected to ratify East Timor's Aug. 30 vote for independence.
The commander of the peacekeeping force, Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, welcomed the departure of the Indonesian troops, who are accused of aiding anti-independence Timorese militias in their campaign of terror in the territory. But Cosgrove expressed concern that their departure leaves a security "vacuum" that the 3,700 peacekeepers will be unable to fill immediately.
The peacekeeping force has yet to deploy in the vast majority of East Timor, and officials worry that militia gangs may continue to harass those areas.
In the latest attack on Roman Catholic clergy, two missionary nuns were among nine people killed by gunmen in a rural village, church officials said today, according to the Associated Press.
The Catholic Bishop of Baukau, East Timor's second-largest town, told Portuguese state radio RDP that the attack took place Saturday on a road as the group was returning from Los Palos, 18 miles to the east.
Both the Italian missionary news service MISNA and the Vatican news agency Fides reported that pro-Indonesian militiamen carried out the attack. The reports were based on sources in East Timor, the AP said.
East Timor is predominantly Roman Catholic, while Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim nation. The militias have attacked Catholic clergy, who are viewed as pro-independence.
Cosgrove sent 150 soldiers, Australian Blackhawk helicopters and armored vehicles to the town of Liquica, about 20 miles west of the capital, Dili, in response to reports that a band of 30 armed militiamen were in the town. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. said the militiamen fled into the hills.
It was the second town outside Dili to feel the presence of the peacekeeping force. Australian Lt. Col. Mick Slater, commander of the Liquica operation, said his troops "would not be staying long" there, but he described the action as a demonstration of the peacekeepers' intent to restore order in the countryside.
[In another operation, peacekeepers raided a militia stronghold in the eastern town of Com Tuesday, detaining around 15 armed people, according to force chief of staff Mark Kelly.]
Militia members have threatened anyone who cooperates with foreigners. The militias were recruited by the Indonesian army, and the army was involved in the burning and looting of towns throughout the territory after the vote for independence.
Cosgrove said about 15,000 Indonesian troops have withdrawn in the past week. He said relations between the multinational force, which began arriving a week ago, and the Indonesian army were delicate, but "we avoided any serious incidents that could have occurred between the troops."
At the Dili port, many of the Indonesian troops who left in the past few days appeared to be glad to get out of the territory that Indonesia has occupied since 1975.
The troops left no doubt of their dislike for the vote for independence. Graffiti on one wall warned: "Watch out! This referendum will bring suffering and sadness to the people of East Timor."
In Geneva, meanwhile, the U.N. Human Rights Commission urged Secretary General Kofi Annan to establish a panel of experts to collect evidence of war crimes by pro-Indonesian militia and Indonesian military officers in East Timor.
Annan is expected to turn the task over to Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, according to a senior U.N. official.
The commission of inquiry for East Timor would not have the same legal stature as the commissions set up by the full Security Council to investigate war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. But Timorese independence leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos Horta said he hoped it would be the "first step" toward the establishment of a war crimes tribunal to try Indonesian officers and militia members.
Special correspondent Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.