Thousands of U.S. Marines delivered food and shelter materials to the devastated territory of East Timor today, escorted by a warship that stood ready in case of militia attacks.
About 2,000 marines and a similar number of sailors arrived in East Timorese waters Thursday aboard three ships. They were escorted by the guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill.
The U.S. Navy has delivered humanitarian aid to East Timor several times in the past year. But this was the first time they were accompanied by a warship, which a Marine spokesman said was needed to protect against possible militia attacks.
“If fired upon we are allowed to fire back in kind,” Lt. David Nevers said in Washington.
Planning for the visit began several months ago, but it coincides with a sharp escalation in violence on Timor island, divided between Indonesia in the west and a temporary U.N. administration in the east.
Anti-independence militias based in West Timor have clashed with U.N. peacekeepers in East Timor. Two U.N. soldiers and several paramilitaries have died recently.
Last week, thousands of militiamen attacked U.N. aid workers in the West Timorese border town of Atambua, killing three foreign staffers.
The U.N. Security Council has condemned Indonesia and demanded that it disarm the militias. But defiant Indonesian officials blamed the international community for last week’s slayings and barred a security council delegation from investigating.
The United Nations maintains a peacekeeping force of about 9,000 in East Timor. About 50 U.S. service people, mostly communications and logistics experts, are permanently based in the capital, Dili.
Marine Col. Mike Williams, who commands the U.S. military contingent in East Timor, said 269 sailors and marines took part in various construction projects around Dili today.
The work included renovating two schools and painting the steeple of Dili Cathedral. Local children helped paint and clean the schools.
With the Bunker Hill and the USS Tarawa anchored off Dili, the two other ships delivered food and shelter materials to the southern border region.
Helicopters from the Tarawa flew to isolated hamlets in the mountainous interior, where shelter kits were distributed to villagers.
All four vessels were to depart Saturday.
The United States is the largest contributor of reconstruction aid to the territory, which was devastated by militia violence after its people voted overwhelmingly to separate from Indonesia a year ago.