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Gunfire Rattles East Timor

September 23, 1999

DILI, East Timor (AP) _ Gunfire rattled across the ravaged city of Dili today, sending international peacekeepers nervously chasing gunmen they believed were hostile militiamen or undisciplined Indonesian soldiers.

No contact was made, and no one was hurt. But a series of shooting incidents _ the first since the multinational force arrived Monday _ and reports of militias gathering in West Timor raised tensions and dissipated the peacekeepers’ warm welcome.

Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, the commander of the peacekeeping force, warned that his men would shoot to kill if they ran into more armed challenges to the foreigners’ authority.

A British officer said Indonesian soldiers on trucks opened fire.

``They were firing to see what our response drills are like,″ said Brig. David Richards, commander of the British contingent. ``They are probing our responses. It is a test.″

``There are those who are trying to create an impression in the minds of everyone that things are less secure″ now that control of Dili’s chaotic capital has passed from the Indonesian army to the Australian-led multinational force, Richards said.

Although the multinational forces are in effective control of Dili, formal authority and responsibility for security has temporarily rested with Indonesia.

In Jakarta, the Indonesian Justice Minister Muladi announced today that martial law had been revoked in East Timor and the responsibility for security would be handed over to the multinational force.

Witnesses reported several shooting incidents, but Richards indicated the bursts of automatic weapons fire came from three truckloads of soldiers passing from the British-controlled sector to the Australian zone.

There was great confusion on the ground about whether the firing was hostile and directed against the international force.

Civilians scurried for cover. Troops moved cautiously through the city, crouching in combat formation, picking through littered back alleys and courtyards, and roughly searching anyone they found for weapons.

``Most of those shots, I’m pleased to say, were not aimed, but of course it’s hard to say that if they’re close by you,″ Cosgrove told Australian television.

``There is a boundary beyond which they cannot go. If they carry those weapons openly, if they point them at any other East Timorese or at my soldiers, then we will use lethal force against them,″ Cosgrove said.

With the daunting prospect of controlling the countryside still ahead of them, Cosgrove said he did not currently have enough soldiers to protect all residential areas in Dili.

He said he would try to speed up deployment of troops still waiting at the staging point in Darwin, northern Australia. About 3,000 soldiers were on the ground as of midday today, with another 4,500 yet to come.

Cosgrove said he heard reports that pro-Indonesia militias in West Timor were massing on the border with the East and ``planning to come into the province.″ He said peacekeepers were monitoring them, but had no mandate to act outside East Timor.

He welcomed the redeployment of Indonesian army troops, mostly locally recruited.

The army, which has been accused of participating in the orgy of killing and looting after East Timor voted overwhelmingly on Aug. 30 to separate from Indonesia, is evacuating the half-island and handing over control to the peacekeepers.

Witnesses say Indonesian troops are setting fire to their own barracks and to civilian property as they leave.

Today, a large blaze at a local government building sent black smoke billowing over the city and ignited rounds of ammunition that had been left inside. The building was used as a temporary barracks for Indonesian soldiers being evacuated. Another building close by also was set ablaze.

Residents found five bodies in a well in central Dili, in what could be the first sign of a mass killing.

Residents said victims were tortured and hung from meat hooks before they were decapitated, dismembered and thrown into the well.

The European Union will use an emergency meeting of the U.N. human rights body to call for a commission of inquiry to be sent to East Timor to investigate atrocities, officials in Geneva said today. The inquiry could be the first stage toward setting up a tribunal to try alleged war criminals such as the one investigating similar atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

At the United Nations in New York, Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas rejected suggestions for an international investigation into possible war crimes, saying Indonesia itself should first look into allegations of human rights violations.

Meanwhile, relief efforts were expected to pick up today. Food drops resumed Wednesday after being suspended since Monday in favor of airlifting peacekeepers and their supplies.

Update hourly