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Militia leader vows fight for his East Timor

The militia leader's personal style is more living large than freedom fighter - cowboy boots tipped with silver filigree, a tight white T-shirt marked with a subtle but unmistakable Playboy bunny logo, and dark glasses with bright gold frames.

But Eurico Guterres, the youthful leader of East Timor's reviled Aitarak militia, vows to sacrifice himself for his cause. "I don't want Australia or the UN to chase me out of the land of my birth," he says, adding that he feels "chased by whites." "I'm willing to die in the place where I was born."

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Mr. Guterres's comments provide some insight into the thinking of anti-independence militia leaders, who may be preparing to attack the international troops restoring order to East Timor and protecting a UN mission there.

Guterres asserts that the Australian-led force is failing to act as a neutral peacemaker and is instead "taking over" East Timor to suit Australia's interests. He adds that the international force has killed at least eight militiamen since arriving Sept. 20.

The Australians say that the force's goal is the impartial restoration of peace and security; that the mission is humanitarian, not strategic; and that all claims of killings are "unfounded."

Encountered on a flight from West Timor to Denpasar, capital of the resort island of Bali, Guterres agreed to an interview in an airport arrival lounge.

Guterres would not say how many men are under his command - an aide said the figure was "secret" - nor whether they would attack the international peacekeepers. And he wouldn't reply directly to a question about Aitarak members burning homes and other buildings in East Timor, killing political opponents, and forcing people to flee the territory. These actions have been documented by journalists and human rights groups.

A proper answer, he explained, would mean reviewing the presence of Australian commandos in East Timor in 1942, when the territory was a Portuguese colony, and Japan's subsequent wartime occupation. He also mentioned some of Portugal's postwar missteps, including the violent suppression of a rebellion in 1959 and its abandonment of weapons "to be used by East Timorese to kill each other."

His point seemed to be that East Timor has seen a great deal of violence in recent decades, not just during the past month or so.

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Portugal essentially walked away from East Timor in 1975, and Indonesia invaded late that year to crush a nascent independence movement. Its military tried for more than two decades to suppress the territory's rebellious residents, occasionally with brutal measures that eroded support for Indonesia's 1976 annexation of East Timor.

In the 1980s, the military created some militias to help fight pro-independence guerrillas, but more sprang up this year after Indonesia suddenly announced it would allow the UN to sponsor a vote on East Timor's future. Aitarak, which means "thorn," and other groups used intimidation and violence to persuade East Timorese to oppose independence.

But East Timorese voters overwhelmingly favored breaking away from Indonesia, prompting the militias and their military backers to hit back with even more violence. They systematically destroyed the territory's infrastructure, burning countless buildings and removing just about anything - such as air-traffic-control equipment - that would be of use to an independent East Timor. An unknown number of people were killed in this rampage.

Now these militia groups have largely relocated to neighboring West Timor, where they are controlling some refugee camps and may be preparing for an assault on the international troops. Joao da Silva Tavares, overall commander of the militias, says he will bring thousands of men into East Timor to "wipe out" the international force.

It's still too early to assess whether this situation has the makings of a long-term civil conflict that would pit the militias against the soon-to-be-independent East Timor.

The militia groups seem to be more of a proxy force than a genuine reflection of the East Timorese minority who want to be part of Indonesia. The Indonesian military denies institutional support for the militias, saying that "rogue elements" are backing them, but the US and other governments are pressuring the Indonesians to cut all ties to Aitarak and other groups.

Guterres also would not say why an Indonesian Army soldier, whose name tag read Joko, appeared to be accompanying him. "I'm Aitarak, and I'm Indonesian, and it is normal that I go around with the Indonesian Army, but it does not mean that the military supports me," he says, adding, "Don't ask things you're not supposed to."

Many of the refugees in West Timor, whom the government estimates at 230,000, say they left because they were under threat by militia groups. If the government figures are correct, and some aid workers say that the numbers are high because of refugees registering more than once, more people have fled the territory than voted to remain part of Indonesia.

The militia groups may be seeking to use the refugees as a reason to demand a partition of East Timor. "The best way to restore security is to divide the territory," Guterres says. "And I do call on the UN to respect my rights as an East Timorese."

"INTERFET," he says, using the acronym of the international force, "is not neutral and is not carrying out the task assigned by the UN - to restore order and mediate between fighting groups so that the groups can respect each other. We question the presence of INTERFET; are they securing order or conducting a military operation?"

Guterres seems to think that the international force is supposed to mediate between factions; the commander of INTERFET repeats endlessly that his role is to disarm. A UN Security Council resolution of Sept. 15 instructs the force to restore peace and security, protect the UN mission in the territory, and facilitate humanitarian assistance - but says nothing about a mediating role.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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