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Tuesday, September 21, 1999 Published at 02:16 GMT 03:16 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Scorched earth in Timor

Australian troops on guard at Dili airport watch distant fires

United Nations peacekeeping troops are confronting a scorched earth policy in East Timor as they advance into the territory.

East Timor
Correspondents say pro-Jakarta militiamen are torching the homes of those who supported independence.

Flames can be seen rising from at least two Dili neighbourhoods, turning the night sky bright orange.

The BBC's Ben Brown: ''The situation is uncannily similar to Kosovo''
And there are reports of numerous fires burning around Liquisa, 30km (20 miles) south of Dili, apparently started in the past few hours.

Militiamen had promised to turn Dili into a ''sea of fire'' if the East Timorese voted to split from Indonesia in last month's referendum.

[ image:  ]
BBC correspondent Ben Brown says the situation is similar to Kosovo when Serbs fleeing the province destroyed buildings rather than leave them behind for their enemies.

The port in Dili is also packed with people who supported the militias and are now desperately trying to get out of the territory. Like the Serbs in Kosovo, they fear that in defeat they will become targets for revenge.

No resistance

About 2,000 troops serving with the International Force for East Timor (Interfet) poured into the territory on Monday.

The BBC's David Shuckman: ''The Indonesian army is losing the territory and feels humiliated''
The heavily-armed force, led by Australian troops, secured the airport and harbour, opening the way for warships to land more troops and equipment.

The first warship of the UN mission later arrived in Dili - a high speed catamaran of the Australian Navy carrying about 500 troops.

The remnants of the militia gangs which unleashed a campaign of terror after last month's vote for independence put up no resistance.

In the only reported encounter, New Zealand soldiers stopped two armed men on a motorbike and confiscated a home-made rifle without any fuss.

The BBC's Jill McGivering reports on Australian reaction to military action
Some residents said it was the quietest day in the capital since the 30 August ballot which sparked the horrifying militia violence.

The UN force will eventually number some 7,500 troops from about 20 countries, including the UK, New Zealand, France, the Philippines and Thailand.

Some 26 members of the UN Mission in East Timor (Unamet), who were driven out by the pro-Jakarta militias last week, have also returned to Dili with the force.

[ image: Troops watch houses burn in a village near Dili]
Troops watch houses burn in a village near Dili
Interfet commander Australian Major General Peter Cosgrove said he had received "first class co-operation" from Indonesian military authorities.

He said the troops "met absolutely no resistance" as they deployed in the shattered capital, but added that it was still "a pretty risky environment".

The general said the priority was to get help to the tens of thousands of refugees who had fled into the mountains, some of whom are reported to be dying of malnutrition and disease.


The first patrols found some of the refugees, who had been chased from their homes by the militias, sheltering in shacks set up among gutted buildings and along the harbour.

They had made shelters out of whatever they could scavenge - cardboard, plastic and the rubble of buildings desecrated by the militiamen.

The Red Cross said 600,000 people were now displaced within the territory, and another 200,000 had gone to neighbouring West Timor and outlying islands.

[ image: Two militiamen were disarmed without incident]
Two militiamen were disarmed without incident
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, who has been holding talks with Indonesian President BJ Habibie on the fate of the refugees, said they must be able to choose whether to return to East Timor.

Meanwhile, anti-independence factions are reported to have formed a coalition, the National Unity Front.

"We won't attack the UN peacekeeping troops. We only want to defend our ground," coalition chief Joao da Silva Tavares was quoted as saying.

The BBC's James Robbins reports: "Anger is reinforced by a sense of shame and defeat"
In Jakarta, Indonesian military chief General Wiranto said that conditions were now sufficiently calm to allow the lifting of martial law, imposed two weeks ago.

However, he said it would remain in place for a few more days. while "we are waiting for the final report about the provincial government".

He dismissed Western media reports that thousands of people may have died in East Timor in recent weeks. He said there had been fewer than 100 deaths.

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