The Globe and Mail Monday, September 20, 1999


Labour government says deal was done before European Union imposed arms embargo on Indonesia

London -- The government of Prime Minister Tony Blair came under a hail of criticism yesterday over the imminent delivery of British military planes to Indonesia despite an EU embargo resulting from the East Timor crisis.

Three Hawk ground-attack aircraft at the centre of the upset, bound for Indonesia, were grounded in Thailand, officially because one of the transit pilots was ill.

The government said it was powerless to stop delivery of the Hawks to Indonesia because the contract was signed before the European Union decreed an arms embargo last week.

The Conservative opposition used the occasion to attack the Labour cabinet for not living up to its promises of "ethical diplomacy."

But "delivery was taken by the Indonesians before the embargo, indeed before the current crisis" in East Timor, the Labour junior defence minister John Spellar said in a televised interview.

"Obviously, in the spirit of the embargo, we would prefer that they did not go to Indonesia," he said. Mr. Spellar noted that the three Hawk jets currently are in Thailand and that Britain no longer was responsible for them.

"Delivery has already been taken by the Indonesian government and they are in Thailand, which is a sovereign independent country, and they are owned by another sovereign independent country," he explained.

The EU issued the arms embargo against Indonesia on Sept. 13, in response to attacks by militias backed by Jakarta's forces against East Timorese who voted overwhelmingly for independence on Aug. 30.

Mr. Spellar noted that the original contract had been signed by the previous Conservative government.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs and defence spokesman, said: "The Indonesians have broken the conditions upon which these aircraft were to be supplied. There is no legal or moral obligation for Britain to continue to fulfill the contract."

He said the British government was responsible for the confusion, leaving "itself open to accusations of complicity in the genocide in East Timor, both by arming the Indonesian generals and its refusal to revoke the licenses for the Hawks."

The affair was revealed by The Sunday Times newspaper, which said the planes were grounded in Thailand after an intervention by Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, and not due to the ill health of one of the pilots.

A total of nine Hawks were granted export licences by the former government. They are among a batch of 16 ordered in 1996, the key component of an estimated $715-million arms deal.

There has been concern that Indonesia has flown some of the already delivered Hawks over East Timor despite assurances that it would not.

Far closer to the distressed territory, East Timorese rebel leader Jose Alexandre (Xanana) Gusmao has left Indonesia for Darwin, Australia, officials in Jakarta said yesterday, raising speculation he would soon return to his homeland.

Mr. Gusmao, widely expected to become the first president of independent East Timor, had been staying at the embassy since the Indonesian government released him from house arrest earlier this month. He had served nearly seven years in prison.

Mr. Gusmao will lead a meeting in Darwin next week on East Timor's transition from an Indonesian province to a sovereign nation, Indonesia's Antara news agency reported.

His Indonesian lawyer said he left his British sanctuary because he was worried about his security if he remained in Jakarta.

"It could endanger his life if he stayed longer in the British embassy compound. The compound is inside Indonesian territory," said Hendardi, who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name.

Protest marchers in Jakarta in the past week have angrily denounced Mr. Gusmao, calling for him to be hanged and pasting the front of the British embassy with anti-Gusmao posters.

Hendardi said Mr. Gusmao is unlikely to go to East Timor until peacekeeping forces had quelled violence there. "It would be good if [Mr. Gusmao] can finally go to East Timor to help with reconciliation," he added.

Before his arrest, Mr. Gusmao led a two-decade guerrilla war against the Indonesian occupation of East Timor. Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and annexed it in 1976.

In Fatima, Portugal, East Timor's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Bishop Carlos Belo, said yesterday he would return to Dili when the city was calm and a multinational peacekeeping force had been deployed across the territory.

AFP, AP and Reuters