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Foreigners building East Timor's new army

Associated Press - October 14, 2001

Slobodan Lekic, Dili – When the Indonesian army helicopter suddenly appeared above a rebel camp hidden in East Timor's towering mountains, Agostinho Sidabatur didn't hesitate. The sentry raised his century-old, bolt-action Mauser rifle, aimed at the Bell Huey clattering overhead and squeezed off a single round.

His comrades later joked that the shot on June 4, 1998, was the luckiest of their 24-year war of liberation. The 7.9 mm bullet ripped through the aircraft's transmission box, sending it into a fatal spin that killed 11 senior Indonesian commanders.

Two years after Indonesia withdrew from East Timor following the territory's overwhelming vote for independence, Sidabatur and hundreds of other former guerrillas are recruits in the army being set up for their new nation. "They're by far the most experienced recruits any of us has ever encountered," said Col. Francisco Nunes, a Portuguese officer who is chief military adviser to the new East Timor Defense Force. "Can you imagine a better sharpshooter than Agostinho in any army?"

About 8,000 soldiers in a United Nations force have been based in East Timor since September 1999, when they intervened to stop a campaign of killing, burning and plunder by Indonesian troops and allied militias. The peacekeepers have fought a series of skirmishes with armed infiltrators from Indonesian-held West Timor who still oppose independence for East Timor's 738,000 people.

An army is just one of the new institutions being set up by the United Nations. Others include a legislature, civil service, police department and judiciary, and East Timorese delegates elected August 30 are drawing up a constitution.

Although the multinational UN peacekeeping force will remain after East Timor achieves independence next year, it is helping build a small and versatile local defense force. Current plans call for two active and two reserve infantry battalions, each numbering about 750 men, said Eugene Daniel, a retired US Army major general helping set up the army. "This force will not be a huge offensive juggernaut. It's a truly defensive force," Daniel said.

Planners say East Timor faces no external threat except from Indonesia, which invaded in 1975 as Portugal withdrew after 300 years of colonial rule. At least 100,000 Timorese died during the resulting war, along with 10,000 Indonesian soldiers.

East Timor's army is designed to deal with border incursions or, in the case of a full-scale invasion, to slow down the attackers until outside help arrives. A small detachment, possibly a light infantry company, may be raised to garrison Oecussi, an East Timorese enclave surrounded by Indonesian territory.

Additionally, a naval component of 50 sailors and two patrol boats donated by Portugal will become operational next year. There are no plans for an air force, but Portugal may leave behind six Allouette helicopters serving with the UN force. Training and equipment are being donated by 13 nations, including the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and South Korea. "These are very tough men," Daniel said of the former guerrillas. "They have lived a hard life and have many military skills."

Training is being conducted by teams of foreign instructors at a base built with Australian aid about 40 kilometers east of Dili. During a recent map-reading exercise, teams of soldiers – their brand-new M-16 assault rifles and Minimi machine guns held at the ready – combed through the countryside as Portuguese instructors accompanied them.

The advisers say they have been impressed by the organizational skills of the army commander, Brig. Gen. Taur Matan Ruak, who led the rebels during the final decade of the liberation war. Ruak said in an interview that he is committed to creating a professional force that will stay out of politics and focus on defending East Timor's borders.

He noted that despite Indonesia's overwhelming military superiority, the guerrillas survived because the people provided them with food, medicine and intelligence. "The most important thing we learned during the war is that we need to keep the support of the population," he said. "If we have that we can win even without weapons."