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Asia: American Forces Likely To Play A Support Role In East Timor

Leading members of the U.S. Congress say there is likely support for a limited American role in a proposed peacekeeping operation for East Timor. But they say the question of U.S. ground troops would get close scrutiny. President Bill Clinton says, however, he does not envision American combat troops in the territory.

Washington, 13 September 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The Republican leader of the U.S. Senate says Congress would likely support a limited American role in a proposed peacekeeping operation in East Timor but sending ground troops would invite serious scrutiny.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said Sunday U.S. lawmakers would probably back providing communications, logistics and air transportation for the East Timor mission now under consideration by the United Nations.

But Lott added (on the CBS weekly television program "Face the Nation"): "If it involved troops on the ground, I think then a lot more questions are going to be asked, and of course, there is always the question of what the cost is going to be."

Expenditures for any such operation would need congressional approval.

Lott's view was echoed by Senator Pete Domenici, another prominent Republican, who said he would prefer to let Australia, Thailand and other Indonesian neighbors provide the peacekeeping troops. Lott chairs the Senate committee that appropriates money for the U.S. government.

Indonesia agreed Sunday to allow UN peacekeepers to move into East Timor, where pro-Jakarta militia embarked on a course of violence against residents of East Timor who voted recently for independence. In Auckland, New Zealand, Clinton on Monday welcomed Indonesia's decision to invite international peacekeepers into East Timor and said the U.S. had not been asked to provide combat troops for the force.

Clinton told reporters the most important thing for the Indonesia government is to make good on its promise, work out the details of inviting the foreign troops and to get them there as quickly as possible.

The American president, who is in New Zealand attending a meeting of Pacific Rim nations, said U.S. forces would largely serve in a support role, including pilots and planes to fly ground troops of other nations into the former Portugese colony.

Indonesian President B.J. Habibie reversed course on the issue of inviting foreign peacekeepers into East Timor in the face of pressure and sanctions from the United States and its allies. Clinton had accused Indonesia's military of aiding pro-Jakarta forces in their rampage against civilians.

Clinton said that if the security force was deployed quickly and effectively, "then we can resume our work with the people of Indonesia ... to help their transition to democracy and the restoration of prosperity there."

White House National Security Adviser Samuel Berger said in an earlier television interview (ABC) on Sunday that it is important now for discussions to proceed quickly in the United Nations so that a UN force can be deployed to restore law and order in East Timor. A vote authorizing such a force is expected to take place at the United Nations Security Council on Monday.

Berger said he agrees the troops should be overwhelmingly from Asia and are most likely to be led by the Australians. He said the U.S. has capabilities that can be valuable -- such as air lifting the forces into the region and providing logistical support. He said Clinton will consult with Congress about the exact nature of the American role in East Timor.

The national security adviser said he, too, does not envision U.S. infantry forces in the territory but that some U.S. forces, if the president so decides, will be participating in a limited way.

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen said in Moscow that Washington is not contemplating combat troops for East Timor. But he said U.S. ships, aircraft and some support troops would be needed.