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Monday, September 20, 1999 Published at 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Timor peace mission begins

Australian soldiers are protecting thousands of refugees at the port

Heavily-armed peacekeeping forces have secured East Timor's airport and begun moving into the capital, Dili, on the first day of the operation to end militia violence there.

East Timor
Transport planes thundered into Dili airport about every 20 minutes from shortly after sunrise. Around 2,300 troops are expected to be in place by the end of Monday.

As Australian troops spread out across the city to secure the port, columns of black smoke from burning houses curled over the city.

The BBC's Angus Roxburgh in Dili: "The beginning of the end of Indonesian rule in East Timor"
The force commander, Australian Major General Peter Cosgrove, said the troops "met absolutely no resistance" as they deployed in the shattered capital.

In the first incident of the deployment, peacekeepers disarmed two militiamen who rode into the port area on a motorbike. They sped away after troops ordered them to leave.

Gen Cosgrove says his priority is to get help to the tens of thousands of people who have fled into the mountains, some of whom are reported to be dying of malnutrition and disease.

First arrivals

The first of the international force's Hercules C-130 aircraft landed at about 0640 local time (2240 GMT Sunday). They have been bringing troops from Australia, New Zealand, France, Thailand, the Philippines and the UK.

[ image: Two militiamen were disarmed without incident]
Two militiamen were disarmed without incident
The first to disembark were Australian troops in full combat gear and - after a brief exchange of handshakes with Indonesian soldiers - they set about their task of securing the airfield as a base for the force.

The UK planes delivered a small team of elite troops from the Special Boat Squadron. About 270 Gurkhas are expected to arrive later on Monday.

No resistance

[ image:  ]
"By and large it's quite a benign and cordial reception," said Gen Cosgrove. But he added that it was "still from my point of view a pretty risky environment".

The first day of the operation is expected to be spent setting up necessary infrastructure - only then will they embark on the task of moving out to rescue civilians driven out of Dili by anti-independence militias.

The airport is rapidly being transformed into a major foreign military base, with medical supplies, water purification equipment, signals and light weaponry.


[ image:  ]
Addressing the Australian parliament after the first deployments, foreign minister Alexander Downer said the international force would probably complete its task in three months.

Earlier, Australia's Prime Minister, John Howard, acknowledged in a nationwide address that the mission could be dangerous.

The BBC's Jonathan Head in Dili: "No hostilities so far, but the peacekeepers will have to expect resistance."
"The troops are very well trained. They are very prepared and anxious to get away," he said. "We wish them a very safe return."

But a militia leader told the French news agency AFP that his men would not be pushed out and called for East Timor to be partitioned.

[ image:  ]
Later on Monday the first of nine warships, led by Australia's HMAS Adelaide, are expected to arrive at Dili harbour.

Gen Cosgrove said some 3,200 troops would be on the ground within seven days. A full deployment of 7,500 is expected to be completed by mid-October.

Dili burns

Click here to see a map of the military deployment

As the peacekeepers prepared to deploy, there were reports of continuing bloodshed in the territory.

BBC correspondents who have returned to Dili have reported East Timorese civilians coming under further attacks from militias and Indonesian soldiers.

[ image: Empty streets: Agencies say thousands have fled Dili]
Empty streets: Agencies say thousands have fled Dili
New figures released by the Red Cross suggest that almost the entire East Timorese population has been displaced by the violence since the vote for independence.

In a statement, the organisation said 600,000 people were now displaced within the territory, and another 200,000 had gone to neighbouring West Timor and outlying islands.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, is visiting East Timorese refugees living in camps in West Timor.

Correspondents say the conditions for East Timorese refugees in West Timor remain grim, with persistent reports of intimidation by the anti-independence militias.

While the peacekeepers take up their positions Indonesian troops appear to be leaving the territory.

East Timor military commander Colonel Noer Muis has been quoted as saying that 80% of the 7,000 troops and 5,000 police had already been pulled out.

Xanana Gusmao, leader of the East Timorese resistance movement, arrived in Darwin on Sunday after leaving his British Embassy refuge in Jakarta.

A spokesman for Mr Gusmao said that he was now beginning to plan a provisional government of independence and a delegation to go to the World Bank.

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