Indonesia ends E. Timor occupation

Final 900 troops depart, ending presence that began with '75 invasion

October 31, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

DILI, East Timor -- Ending a failed 24-year occupation that culminated in a rampage of destruction, the last 900 Indonesian soldiers remaining on this island territory pulled down their red-and-white flag yesterday and began heading home.

Their officers were seen off at the airport by the people who took their place: the United Nations representative; the Australian general who heads an international peacekeeping force; and Jose Alexandre Gusmao, the guerrilla chief who led a separatist war against them.

"I feel sensational," said Gusmao with a delighted grin after sharing polite smiles and handshakes with the departing officers. Freed from seven years in detention in Indonesia, he is now the effective leader of an emerging East Timorese nation. He and his countrymen had battled the Indonesians since they invaded in 1975, occupying the vacuum left when Portugal abandoned this land, its former colony, a year earlier.

"Now, beginning today, there is no more Indonesia here," said Lt. Col. J. D. Sembiring, one of the departing officers, who said he thought the East Timorese had erred in voting for independence, but wished them well. "Now we want to leave this area because in the struggle so many people have died," he said.

An estimated 200,000 East Timorese have been killed or died of disease and starvation since Indonesia invaded and annexed this land as its 27th province. Tens of thousands of Indonesian soldiers also have lost their lives.

As the sun sank, young men danced around a small fire on the beach, singing of freedom and shouting, "Yeehah! Viva East Timor!"

"Laughingly, we celebrate our freedom," said one, Santos Kosme. "Today is happy."

Hours later, the last of the Indonesian soldiers filed aboard their transport ship, each with his bag on his shoulder, in a silence broken only by low murmuring.

In the last action of their years here, a small guard unit crouched behind a perimeter fence at the port with a machine gun.

The troop departure was the final step in a painful separation that began with a referendum Aug. 30 in which 78.5 percent of those voting chose to break away from Indonesia.

The vote was followed by a rampage of terror and destruction by militias backed by the Indonesian military that destroyed or damaged an estimated 70 percent of East Timor's buildings and forced most of its 800,000 people to become refugees.

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