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Thursday, September 2, 1999 Published at 01:19 GMT 02:19 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

UN faces challenge in East Timor

The UN's Jamsheed Marker is welcomed by the East Timorese

By UN correspondent Mark Devenport

The UN has already expressed its delight at the success of the vote which took place on Monday in East Timor.

East Timor
The 98% turnout was hailed by UN special representative Jamsheed Marker.

He described it as the eagle of liberty stretching its wings over the people of a territory which has been under Indonesian military occupation for a quarter of a century.

But, while the UN may feel proud of its conduct of the vote, it knows it is still engaged in an enterprise which poses considerable risks - not least for the safety of UN staff members on the ground.

The latest violence in East Timor emphasises the challenge facing the UN in the territory in what's likely to be a difficult next few months.

[ image: Buildings have been set alight in Dili]
Buildings have been set alight in Dili
The Security Council has strongly condemned the attacks by militia groups near the headquarters of the UN mission in East Timor.

But council members take different views of whether an international force should be sent to the territory.

When Indonesia agreed to sign the UN-brokered agreement on East Timor in May, it stipulated it would provide security in the area. It insisted there was no need for the deployment of foreign troops.

The UN decided it was worth the gamble to send a civilian mission to the territory.

Safety issue raised

The hope was that the presence of so many foreign observers would pressurise the Indonesian security forces to bring the militia groups responsible for most of the recent violence in the territory under control.

If the votes are counted and the Indonesian government accepts the expected majority for independence, the UN may feel that - in the long run - its gamble has paid off.

But already the life of at least one local UN staff member has been lost. Some governments believe it is time to consider the deployment of a force which could ensure the safety of both UN personnel and the East Timorese people.

Some Security Council members like Canada, don't want to deploy a force now, but think it would be wise to consider when that might become necessary.

[ image: The UN wants Indonesia to bring the militia under control]
The UN wants Indonesia to bring the militia under control
The result of the vote on independence is expected this weekend, but its ratification by the Indonesian parliament is not due to take place until November.

This leaves plenty of scope for more chaos on the ground.

So far, the UN has simply reiterated the responsibility of the government in Jakarta to bring East Timor's militias under control.

Significantly, the United States has adopted the same view.  It is thought that neighbouring states like Australia and New Zealand would be reluctant to intervene in East Timor without explicit American backing.

Casualties 'predictable'

Meanwhile, many Islamic countries are reluctant to back any intervention that does not have Jakarta's full endorsement.

Off the record, diplomats say the present level of casualties in East Timor, while highly regrettable, was always predictable.

The harsh reality is that more people would have to die before the UN considered deploying a force against Indonesia's wishes.

After November however, the deployment of some kind of force is likely if the UN finds itself  overseeing  East Timor's transition from occupation to independence.

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