When I last visited Washington two years ago, I met with President Clinton in the White House to discuss what was then a bad human rights situation in my native East Timor. At the conclusion of the meeting, for which I was grateful, the president stated, in a friendly and sympathetic way, "We will try to be more helpful." That help is vitally needed now for East Timor, a former Portuguese colony illegally invaded and occupied by Indonesian forces in 1975.

Whatever the problems in East Timor were in 1997, they are infinitely worse now: Put simply, the people of East Timor face the specter of genocide. Although President B. J. Habibie of Indonesia announced on Sunday that international peacekeepers would be allowed into East Timor, nothing has actually changed since then. In fact, merciless attacks on defenseless people have continued without respite. My people face wholesale slaughter. Decisive action by President Clinton, the United States and the world is urgently needed before it is too late.

Since the Aug. 30 United Nations-sponsored referendum, when 78.5 percent of those able to vote chose to become independent from Indonesia, a cyclone of violence orchestrated by Indonesian army elements has swept East Timor from end to end. This is a monstrous effort to annul the people's choice, which they made despite months of constant intimidation and killings aimed at securing a vote in favor of Indonesian rule. Dili, the capital, is now a charred ghost town that has been completely depopulated.

Many have been butchered by Indonesian forces, which are the true authors of this tragedy -- a small group of local militia leaders could not exist without army support and are a convenient fiction perpetrated by Indonesian military intelligence to convince the world that the tragedy in East Timor is a civil war rather than the war of conquest that it really is. More than half of East Timor's 700,000 people have been forcibly removed from their homes, many of which have been burned.

Members of the clergy, Protestant as well as Catholic, have been murdered in cold blood by Indonesian troops, some for the simple act of defending refugees. There is systematic persecution of the Catholic Church; our structures have been demolished, as was my own residence and surrounding buildings, where thousands of people, mainly women and children, had taken sanctuary. During the assault on my home, as well as many other church facilities in East Timor in recent days, numerous people have been killed. Last week, I was compelled to take refuge abroad to alert the world to this evil campaign of annihilation.

Since early last week, hundreds of thousands of people have been herded at gunpoint into trucks, boats and planes to be taken to Indonesian West Timor, where they are subject to deadly treatment at the hands of gangs of paramilitary thugs, and where East Timorese clergy are being persecuted. Hundreds of thousands of others have fled into mountainous areas, where, hunted by Indonesian troops with high-powered weapons, they face starvation.

The world must contemplate the fact that by 1979 alone, at least 200,000 people, or about a third of the original population of 688,000, had perished from the combined effects of the war. There were many executions and deaths in combat between guerrillas seeking independence and the Indonesian army, but the vast majority died from war-related starvation that could have been prevented had international relief agencies been granted prompt access to East Timor by the Indonesian government.

Now the same thing is about to happen again, despite a tiny presence of Red Cross workers. In fact, all told, East Timorese people now in the countryside are facing extermination. We need an immediate, massive humanitarian relief effort to avert a calamity.

What is the world waiting for? An international peacekeeping force is urgently needed to prevent the slaughter from proceeding, and it must arrive in East Timor right now, not in weeks or months, if an even more cataclysmic situation is to be avoided that would be a permanent stain on the world's conscience. Delays engineered by Indonesian military authorities pursuing a murderous scorched-earth policy away from the eyes of the world -- journalists and most other foreign observers have been forced to leave because of the efforts of the army -- must not be permitted. While diplomats talk, my country is being destroyed.

The Pentagon must use the full weight of its influence with the Indonesian military to cease its campaign of violence. Moreover, the United States and other world powers should insist that Indonesian troops quickly withdraw if this tragic conflict is to end once and for all. The world's willingness to indulge Jakarta as it continues to claim sovereign rights in East Timor cannot be justified with heartless talk of the great importance of Indonesia, as if Indonesians are the only ones who matter.

The United States and other nations that have supported the Indonesian military with arms aid as well as diplomatic and financial backing since it first invaded East Timor and turned a blind eye until very recently have a solemn obligation to take concrete measures to avert further annihilation.

After the terrible events of recent months, we must keep our spirits up, for above all we must go back to rebuild. But we cannot accomplish this alone.

The writer is the Roman Catholic bishop of Dili, East Timor. He was awarded the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize.