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Friday, July 30, 1999 Published at 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK


World: Asia-Pacific

Australia seeks end to Timor terror

Mr Downer met jailed Timorese leader Xanana Gusmao in Jakarta

By Jonathan Head in Jakarta

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has arrived in East Timor for a visit to discuss security in the territory before and after the UN-supervised referendum, scheduled for the end of next month.

East Timor
He is expected to meet Indonesian and church officials and representatives of the pro- and anti-independence groups.

East Timor lies just 500 km north of Australia and before leaving for its capital, Dili, Mr Downer expressed his concern to Indonesian officials in Jakarta over the possibility of violence breaking out immediately after the ballot.

Pro-Jakarta militias have warned of civil war if the vote is in favour of independence.

Post-vote period

There are high stakes for Australia in the former Portuguese colony where it is already heavily involved in supporting the UN mission.

Should violence in the territory escalate after the referendum, Australia would shoulder a large part of the responsibility for clearing up any mess.

It may either have to absorb refugees - it is already home to a large community of East Timorese exiles - or contribute troops to an international peacekeeping force.

Mr Downer wants the UN and the Indonesian authorities to start thinking hard about what he calls phase two of the referendum process, the period immediately after the vote when armed factions might challenge the result.

Indonesia has given little indication of what its role will be at this stage.

The only comment so far has been from Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, who said earlier this month that if the vote went in favour of independence, Indonesian forces could be withdrawn within a matter of weeks.

UN role

The UN's future role is also unclear. The current UN mission has a mandate limited just to organising the referendum.

UN officials say they will not abandon East Timor once the vote is over.

Their mission could, if necessary, be expanded, even to include peacekeepers.

But the lack of any concrete plans for the post-referendum period risks leaving a dangerous vacuum of power in a territory whose society is still deeply divided after more than 23 years of military occupation.



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