Update - UN to Decide on American Troops in East Timor

By Scott Hogenson | July 7, 2008 | 8:07 PM EDT

1st add: Includes information on UNAMET attack, funding, US role

(CNS) - The United States Tuesday said the question of whether American troops will be dispatched to East Timor will be decided by the United Nations, which is overseeing an upcoming referendum on autonomy for the former Portuguese colony.

A statement by the US Information Agency said there are "no plans to send US forces to East Timor independent of the UN," which currently has a force of nearly 1,000 staff, election officials, police and military observers on the island.

The USIA statement was in response to an Australian news report that as many as 15,000 US troops would be sent to East Timor as part of a peacekeeping effort.

East Timor was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and was subsequently annexed. Over the past quarter century, there have been increasing reports of human rights violations by Indonesia, many of which were aimed at the island's Catholic population.

The referendum will let residents of the island decide whether they want to continue under Indonesian rule or gain autonomy.

The vote on autonomy for East Timor, referred to locally as the popular consultation, was originally scheduled to be held on August 8, but was delayed by the UN until August 30 amid accusations that the voting process is being tampered with by forces sympathetic to Jakarta. The voting will be supervised by the United Nations Mission in East Timor.

But violence and factional fighting is placing the referendum in jeopardy, according to one human rights group. The Foundation for Human Rights in East Timor Tuesday alleged that pro-Indonesian militias were intimidating voters and destroying voter registration cards in an effort to swing the outcome of the vote.

The group also said that if such violations of campaign protocol did not stop, it would call on the UN "to send peacekeeping forces as soon as possible and extend the mandate of the UNAMET," according to a statement by the group.

The foundation also claimed that it appeared that the Indonesian government played a role in the alleged intimidation, saying in a statement that "the cases we dealt with indicated the involvement of Indonesian government officials," including the armed forces and the national police.

Indonesia is supposed to be responsible for "maintaining peace and security in East Timor," during the popular consultation and the campaign leading up to it, according to a May 5, 1999 agreement between Portugal and Indonesia.

Tensions over the upcoming vote and the UN's role in administering the popular consultation were illustrated June 29, when an estimated 100 militia members reportedly attacked the UN regional office in Malaiana. "Several people were seriously injured, one UNAMET staff member was hurt and the office was extensively damaged," according to a statement from the press office for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.

The UN "deplore(d) in the strongest terms," the attack, with officials protesting the violence to Indonesian authorities and calling for an investigation, according to the statement.

On the same day as the attack in Malaiana, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution earmarking $52.5 million to continue funding the East Timor mission through the end of August, one day after the re-scheduled popular consultation.

The United States is already paying a a substantial portion of the cost to monitor the East Timorese vote. A synopsis of statements published by the UN noted that Susan M. Shearouse of the American delegation to the UN said that "her government had pledged a voluntary contribution of $10 million," nearly half of the $21.7 million on hand at the end of June.

Money to finance UNAMET is from a fund of contributions received from UN member nations. However, if the fund comes up short, "assessments are to be apportioned" among the US and other UN members to make up the difference.

East Timor is located about 500 miles northwest of Darwin, on the northern coast of Australia.