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29 September 1999

Press Briefing



The international force in East Timor had been very successful so far in helping to restore peace and security to many parts of the territory, Alexander Downer, Australia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, told correspondents at a Headquarters press conference this morning. A resolution of the East Timor issue would, in the medium-term, bring greater stability to the Asia-Pacific region.

Although there was still a long way to go, Mr. Downer said, the international force had acted with impressive professionalism so far in carrying out a risky endeavour. The Australian-led international force was genuinely multinational and the participation of other countries was particularly appreciated at this most difficult stage of the operation.

He said it was important to Australia that the East Timor issue be resolved satisfactorily, according to the preferences of the territory's people. After a quarter of a century, the intervention provided the opportunity to end the appalling East Timor saga, which went back to the end of Portugal's colonial rule in 1974 and the invasion by Indonesia in 1975.

Following the violence that had taken place in the territory between 1974 and 1999, he continued, East Timor would eventually come under United Nations administration and finally attain full independence. The situation had taken too long to resolve, but as a country adjacent to Indonesia and East Timor, Australia was pleased that resolution was at hand.

Asked to shed light on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's statement that Australian troops were taking an aggressive posture towards the East Timorese, whether they were militia members or not, Mr. Downer said they were operating in a very dangerous environment. The militias had carried out killings, burned much property and forcibly removed many people from the territory.

He said that the Chapter VII Security Council resolution -- a very strong mandate -- authorized the multinational force to restore peace and security. During the Security Council debate, Malaysia had voted for the Chapter VII mandate, as had all the other Council members. To the great credit of the multinational force, it had successfully disarmed militia members, confiscating well over 1,000 weapons.

Australia Press Conference - 2 - 29 September 1999

Asked by another correspondent if there was a policy to "shoot first and ask questions later", the Minister replied that the force had not shot anybody.

In the absence of judges and civil administration, another journalist asked, what would happen to militia members arrested by multinational force and then handed over to Indonesian police? Mr. Downer said that in normal circumstances arrested people were charged and tried. But, it was important to understand that East Timor was Indonesian territory. It was in transition until the People's Consultative Assembly in Jakarta decided on the independence ballot's implementation.

Asked about the relationship between the multinational force and the pro-independence Armed Forces for the National Liberation of East Timor (Falintil), and whether the multinational force had enough troops to flush out all the militias, the Minister said the multinational force leadership had been in contact with Falintil. In implementing the Security Council resolution, it kept in touch with a wide range of people in East Timor, including Falintil. The multinational force would build up to between 7,000 and 8,000 troops, according to people with military expertise.

Responding to a question about East Timorese refugees reportedly being held in Indonesian West Timor against their will, he said there were between 150,000 and 170,000 refugees, although the Indonesian estimate was higher. The Indonesian Foreign Minister had told Asia- Pacific Foreign Ministers earlier this week that the refugees were free to return home whenever they wished.

He added that concerns had been expressed by non-governmental organizations that anti-independence militias were active in West Timor refugee camps. What was important in the very short term was that United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations had free and easy access to the refugees in order to provide food, water and health care.

Asked by another journalist how far Australia would scale back its troop strength when United Nations peacekeeping forces went in, he said that both Australia and the Secretary-General wanted to reduce the Australian force. The high number of those troops was because Australia was the country that had been immediately ready to intervene, since it had planned for that contingency. Forces from Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and other countries would increasingly be going in.

How viable was East Timor as an independent entity? another correspondent asked. Was the international community in fact creating an entity that would be dependent on Australia?

The Minister replied that while the territory would not be dependent on Australia, there was no question that it would have a

Australia Press Conference - 3 - 28 September 1999

great need for international assistance, including Australian assistance, in the short- to medium- term. Australia had been the largest aid donor to East Timor for some years and was prepared to continue its support. However, it was a multinational effort and a number of strong commitments had been made to assist East Timor, including those by the European Union and Portugal.

Mr. Downer told another journalist that the people responsible for the humanitarian crisis were those who had perpetrated it. It was absurd to suggest that the United Nations or anyone else was responsible. The Indonesian Government and the United Nations had made the right decision to proceed with the ballot. There had been a great deal of political resistance in Indonesia and strong opposition within the Indonesian military. Had the offer to go ahead with the ballot been turned down, there would have been outrage around the world that the opportunity for the East Timorese had been thrown away.

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