East Timor: Time to Send in the United Nations?

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After years of stubborn determination, Indonesia now wants to wash its hands of the mess it’s created in East Timor. As the anti-independence militiamen nurtured by elements of the Indonesian army continued their bloody rampage Thursday, Jakarta announced that it would accept having U.N. troops take over peacekeeping duties, a reversal of its strenuous opposition to the presence of any foreign troops. "Indonesia may think handing over the territory to U.N. peacekeepers will get Jakarta off the hook, but the international community has made clear that Indonesia will be held responsible for what happens in East Timor," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "But it may be that Indonesian military officers, some of whom are reluctant to give up their extensive business interests in East Timor, are acting outside of government authority –- and bringing in foreign troops may be the only way for the government to get out of a difficult situation."

The results of Monday’s independence referendum are expected within days, and the result is expected to be overwhelmingly in favor of autonomy for the former Portuguese colony seized by Indonesia in 1975. Violence by anti-independence militiamen is building to a frenzy, with attacks on civilians, U.N. officials and journalists unimpeded by the Indonesian police and troops charged with maintaining order, and it may take a force without vested interests to pacify the militias. "The U.N. would probably be prepared to send in a force in order to resolve this conflict," says Dowell. "While the U.S. may not be prepared to get involved, countries in the region, such as Australia and New Zealand, might be eager to provide troops." But the mounting violence in the wake of the vote suggests that the militiamen — and their sponsors — aren’t exactly in a mood to give peace a chance.