Militias Intensify Terror in East Timor |
By Keith B. Richburg
DILI, Indonesia, Sept. 2—Violence mounted in East Timor today as pro-Indonesian militias opposed to independence for the territory continued their rampage, firing on this provincial capital, killing three more U.N. workers, threatening journalists and creating a climate of fear that caused both Timorese and foreign visitors to flee.
The Indonesian government dispatched an additional 500 riot police, and Indonesia's military, in a major shift, said it would accept an international peacekeeping force in the territory if the vote count from Monday's historic referendum produces a majority for independence.
Since Monday's ballot, and even in advance of the vote on independence or autonomy within Indonesia, there have been mounting calls for armed peacekeepers, as militia groups opposed to independence -- with support from hard-line factions in the Indonesian military and intelligence services -- have stormed through cities and the countryside. Today, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said in Canberra that planning had begun for "a United Nations security presence."
Assistant Secretary of State Stanley Roth told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that Indonesia is capable of disbanding the militias and must face international intervention if it fails to do so.
At the United Nations, there was no formal response to Indonesia's decision to consider a U.N. peacekeeping force, but senior U.N. officials said there is little enthusiasm among U.N. members for sending peacekeepers into such a volatile situation. Canada failed to obtain Security Council backing for a proposal to send a U.N. delegation to East Timor to assess the security situation. "Governments have been talking in the corridors about this," said one U.N. official. "Are they ready to go in guns blazing . . . which is what you would have to do? I don't think so."
The longstanding U.N. position has been that peacekeepers should not be sent into active war zones, but rather to places that have permanent cease-fires or peace agreements and where all sides welcome the world body's presence.
East Timor has known major violence since 1975, when Indonesian troops invaded the Connecticut-size territory and began a brutal occupation that is believed to have cost more than 200,000 lives. Its annexation of East Timor in 1976 has never been recognized internationally and has been condemned worldwide. Indonesian President B.J. Habibie's decision to allow a referendum -- with the risk that the East Timorese would choose independence -- marked a major concession by Jakarta and defied military opposition.
U.N. spokesmen confirmed the deaths today of two local workers in Maliana, west of Dili, and of another in the town of Atsabe -- which followed the slaying of a U.N. staff member by militiamen near a polling station on Monday. The spokesman said that five other local U.N. workers were missing and feared dead. Gunfire could still be heard in Maliana last night late into the night, the spokesman said, and about two dozen houses were on fire. He said 33 foreign U.N. workers had taken shelter in the local police station.
Indonesian journalists fled Dili after some received death threats from the militias, and foreign news organizations were chartering planes to begin evacuations after reporters were threatened and a British Broadcasting Corp. reporter was beaten and kicked. About 100 people, including 25 journalists, were evacuated from Dili this morning, the Reuters news service reported.
Concern grew today after a half-dozen militiamen charged into the Turismo Hotel, where many foreign journalists were staying. At least one militiaman was waving a pistol, and they threatened to return and kill foreign reporters after nightfall. A Canadian woman who was at the hotel was shoved and kicked during the incident.
Diplomats also said that members of the Aitarak ("Thorn") militia, in their trademark black T-shirts, were again seen at Dili's airport, apparently stopping some East Timorese from boarding flights. A militia leader, Eurico Guterres, has said he would prevent East Timor's "political elite" from fleeing the territory. The International Committee of the Red Cross announced it was preparing sites across the border in the western part of the island for a possible influx of refugees -- as many as 20,000.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military was taking what one defense official called "prudent steps" in the area, including moving a vessel with several helicopters aboard toward East Timor and keeping the USS Mobile Bay, a cruiser, in position for emergency assistance. But the U.S. military has not been asked to intercede or provide assistance.
The town of Gleno, scene of some of the most serious violence on voting day, was said to have essentially fallen under the control of the militias. With police barricaded inside their compound, militiamen rule the streets there, and residents, including local officials, were fleeing.
"Civil authority has been surrendered to the militia," said an Australian journalist who had police protection on a brief visit to the town today. "They run the town. . . . They hold everything, and more were moving into town. They are reinforcing Gleno." The road east of the capital, between Dili and Hera, was also taken over by militiamen, who set up checkpoints and stopped vehicles.
In Jakarta, Brig. Gen. Soedrajat, the military spokesman, said in published remarks that if the East Timorese voted for independence and civil war erupted, the Indonesian military might find it "difficult . . . to maintain its presence" in the territory. The military, he said, "will then request a peacekeeping force so the [armed forces] will be clean.
"The Indonesian government will still have a responsibility to maintain security, but we could not do it alone. We would request the deployment of a U.N. peacekeeping force." He said Indonesian troops might join such a force, "wearing the U.N.'s blue berets." The United Nations supervised the referendum and is counting the votes, but its personnel are unarmed. Indonesia previously had rejected the idea of armed foreign peacekeepers on what it still considers its sovereign territory.
Some analysts said Jakarta's new tone on peacekeepers may indicate that the Indonesian government may now accept the fact that it probably has lost in the referendum. The voter turnout -- more than 98 percent -- is thought have voted in favor of independence.
The prospect of another civil war seemed to be on many minds here, with the territory now close to sliding into anarchy and the police, responsible for security, seemingly unable or unwilling to control the militias.
On Wednesday, hundreds of militiamen armed with rifles, pistols and machetes laid siege to a neighborhood around U.N. headquarters in Dili, hacking one man to death and threatening foreign journalists on the scene. Wednesday's battles, and the long delay in the police response, led the United Nations to seek new arrangements with the Indonesian army to provide security.
Previously, the U.N. and foreign diplomats had considered the army a major part of the problem in East Timor, and had asked that more responsibility be shifted to the police. The change reflects how the situation has spiraled out of control, with the army being asked to provide assistance.
As violence spread through Dili neighborhoods, U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst characterized the response of local police as "totally inadequate." Asked if U.N. officials here could do anything more to protect themselves and the East Timorese who work for them, Wimhurst said: "We've been defenseless from the beginning -- that's the point. Indonesian security forces are the ones who manage security in East Timor."
Wimhurst also appealed to foreign journalists to stay and report on the continuing violence. "This is the wrong time to be leaving," he said. "Your presence throughout this process has been absolutely crucial" to making sure the world knows what is happening in East Timor.
The army created and armed the 13 separate militia groups operating in East Timor shortly after Habibie announced the referendum. But now many are questioning whether the army still maintains complete control.
Some diplomats and others said the militias may now recognize that their campaign of intimidation to squelch an independence vote -- in which dozens have been killed and more than 60,000 displaced -- has failed. What is happening now could be a bloody last stand, the analysts said, and perhaps an attempt to carve out "pro-Indonesian" areas of East Timor, particularly in the westernmost districts.
Staff writer Dana Priest in Washington contributed to this report.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company