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SYDNEY — Still the broken skulls are being unearthed. And still the United Nations talks on. Soon, Australia fears, the evidence of atrocities in East Timor will be scattered and, worse, forgotten.

As Australian troops leading a U.N. peace-enforcing mission uncover more of the systematic carnage in the soon-to-be-free Indonesian province, shocked Australians are demanding to know how soon world revulsion will be translated into world justice.

The preplanned revenge that followed East Timor’s recent vote for independence from Jakarta continues. Even as shocked villagers are persuaded to come out of their hideouts, the same Indonesian militia gangs that first burned their homes are raiding again, armed with military rifles and machetes.

When Australian soldiers recovered eight skulls and two corpses from a burned-out truck near Dili, they could do no more than videotape that evidence and bury the remains. Last week they found six bodies on a beach near Suai. Again they recorded and buried.

Near the skeletal ruins of Suai Cathedral, U.N. peacekeepers are recording accounts of 200 refugees slaughtered, including three priests.

Alpha Company of the Sydney-based 3rd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment has learned of a militia push timed for Oct. 30, the day Jakarta is expected to ratify the U.N.-sanctioned vote allowing East Timor independence.

A 3,000-strong task force of Australian, New Zealand and British Gurkha troops are patrolling the border area. But even the border line’s location is disputed. This is where they are challenging incursions by army-trained gangs.

Revenge attacks are on the rise. The Australian commander in Maliana, Maj. Dave Rose, has been given the names of 12 proindependence supporters executed before relief arrived. One was Manuel de Oliveira, head of the local proindependence CNRT Party.

Australian observers on the ground say the latest flood of threats from West Timor is a desperate bid to exact revenge before Jakarta reins in the Indonesian Army. Killings by army-trained gangs are embarrassing the political ambitions of army chief Gen. Wiranto.

Frustration is building up in both East Timor and Australia over delays in collecting evidence of human-rights abuses. A month ago the U.N. Commission on Human Rights authorized an inquiry, but experts from New York are still not on the ground.

Impatience boiled over last week when even the head of the U.N. Assistance Mission to East Timor, Ian Martin, chided the U.N. Human Rights Commission’s tardiness. Martin expressed concern at the deterioration of evidence already found.

Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, the Australian commander of the peace-enforcing force INTERFET, has made known his concerns. So has Col. Duncan Lewis, INTERFET spokesman in Canberra, who added: “INTERFET is securing the sites so others can do the investigation.”

More than 200 Australian lawyers have volunteered to gather evidence of atrocities. Under the auspices of the International Commission of Jurists, they have begun to interview East Timorese evacuated to Australia during the September blood bath.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has appointed Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson to head an inquiry. The Irish lawyer was in Darwin when the main wave of refugees landed. She is under a tight deadline to get a full report to the U.N. Security Council by Dec. 31.

Beset by street riots, Jakarta was at first reluctant to cooperate. U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen persuaded then President B.J. Habibie to set up an internal Indonesian inquiry. Much depends on continuing turmoil in Jakarta.

When Canberra rallied world opinion behind an East Timor rescue mission, the government of Australian Prime Minister John Howard was under no illusion about the length and cost of Australia’s first major overseas operation since Vietnam. The cost of Australian leadership of ground forces, plus future aid for reconstruction, will be a long-term burden.

Canberra is heartened by reports from Tokyo of a World Bank mission to survey the costs. The mission will be run in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and key donor countries such as Japan.

East Timorese independence leader, Sydney-based Jose Ramos Horta, says his country will become a South Pacific nation, not part of Southeast Asia.

“We will fight any attempt to have any ASEAN country, accomplices of Indonesia, impose themselves on us,” Horta said here. He warned he will totally oppose a bid by Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammed Mahathir to appoint a Malaysian commander of East Timor forces. “Malaysia does not care about human rights,” he said.

Horta, who has rallied a sizable exiled East Timor community in Australia, wants to see a new administration start up in Dili within the next few weeks and the first free government take over control within two to three years.

Freedom fighter Xanana Gusmao, the man tipped to become the first president, returned to Dili last week. He has had a long wait. First in the hills fighting troops from Java, then in a Jakarta jail.

Gusmao claimed the same Indonesian military responsible for the East Timor massacres were also responsible for killings continuing in the nearby provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya.

He rejected a claim that Australian Prime Minister Howard has “blood on his hands.” The claim was made over Howard’s part in persuading Habibie to agree to the Aug. 30 independence ballot. “We accepted death as a duty,” Gusmao said. “if somebody has to be blamed, it is ourselves.”

Howard played a key behind-the-scenes role in rallying world opinion, notably in getting a wary U.S. President Bill Clinton to commit backup support. His resolve in the face of gang attacks on Australia’s Jakarta Embassy has done him no harm in domestic opinion polls. He has pulled well ahead of the Labor Party’s opposition leader, Kim Beazley.

As television viewers continue to watch in horror as Australian soldiers uncover further evidence of atrocities in East Timor, the public here grow more concerned. So far support for the Howard intervention and Aussie troops remains tremendously high.

Even so, Australians are turning in some relief — skeptics would say in comic relief — to the new drama on the political calendar — a referendum on whether Australia should become a republic. After the agony of the East Timor carnage, the huffing and puffing of the republicans vs. the monarchists would sound like theater farce — if not for the fact that the outcome Nov. 6 will be deadly serious.

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