MELBOURNE, Australia — Analysts warn Australia may have stumbled into a “mission impossible” in nearby East Timor, where its troops dominate an international force of more than 2,000 soldiers and police seeking to end a lawless rampage that threatens to devolve into civil war.
East Timor’s president, Xanana Gusmao, yesterday declared a state of emergency and assumed sole command of security in the world’s newest country, hoping to end the violence that has left at least 27 persons dead and much of the capital city of Dili a smoldering ruin.
The state of emergency will last for 30 days, during which time authorities, including foreign forces, will have the power to stop large gatherings, demand identity papers, carry out surveillance and seize weapons, ammunition and explosives.
The much-criticized prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, will remain in office, but with severely curtailed powers, and Mr. Gusmao said he reserved the right to declare more severe measures under a state of siege if necessary.
With the East Timor deployment, Australia has troops in six countries, more than at any time since World War II, prompting public questions about whether the military will be able to maintain its commitment in Iraq. Australia has 1,400 soldiers in Iraq, about 400 in Afghanistan, 400 in the Solomon Islands and about 200 each in Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula.
Lt. Col. Michael Mumford, the acting commander of the Australian troops in East Timor, was quoted by Agence France-Presse on Friday saying the deployment could last for months.
Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University (ANU), warned yesterday in the Age newspaper that the country had taken on more than it expected in East Timor, and “we may live to regret it.”
ANU’s Andrew Macintyre, director of the Asia Pacific School of Economics and Government, took a similar line in the Australian. “If we are not careful, we will tie ourselves into a level of engagement that we will not be able to sustain,” he said.
Interviewed Monday by the Australian Broadcasting Corp., Foreign Minister Alexander Downer was asked how the United States might respond if the demands of intervening in East Timor force Australia to scale back its commitment in Iraq.
“I think that [the Americans] understand our situation, and our situation is that we are able to fulfill those tasks,” Mr. Downer replied. “Obviously, when we make our decisions about what we are going to do in terms of deployment of the military, we take into account our capabilities.”
The crisis in East Timor began in March when 600 troops — nearly half the army — from the western command of East Timor’s Defense Force went on strike, claiming they had been discriminated against by their seniors and other easterners, because they came from an area near the Indonesian border.
The government then dismissed the soldiers — which, in turn, led to swirling east-west gang warfare and growing pressure on Mr. Alkatiri to resign as looting and arson sent more than 20,000 people fleeing to refugee camps.
A practicing Muslim, Mr. Alkatiri has long been at loggerheads with Mr. Gusmao and has accused the party of trying to undermine him. The 56-year-old prime minister has also faced accusations of nepotism and cronyism in awarding lucrative government contracts to help build the fledgling nation of 1 million people.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said on his return from a visit to Washington last week that the way East Timor has been governed “left a lot to be desired.”
But he later stressed to Parliament that Australia “has a particular obligation to assist what is a small and poor country in its struggle for a stable democratic future.”
“Australia — a large, stable and prosperous country — has a special responsibility to act as a force for peace and order in our immediate region.”