A new round of violence erupted here in the East Timor capital today, just four days before a scheduled vote on independence, as militiamen opposed to the territory's separation from Indonesia roamed through the streets firing automatic weapons, hurling homemade explosives and burning houses and cars.
At least five people were reported killed in the melee, and police sources said at least several more had died, but this could not be immediately confirmed. An unknown number of others were injured, including a photographer for the Reuters news agency, who was shot in the leg.
The violence was the most serious in Dili since April, when anti-independence militiamen stormed through the city, burning houses and vendors' stalls and killing 12 people. Today's incident threatened to disrupt the U.N.-supervised vote on independence, which already has been postponed twice because of violence.
The turmoil also overshadowed a major conciliatory announcement from the Indonesian government--that independence leader Xanana Gusmao, who is being held in a prison bungalow in Jakarta, will be released around Sept. 15, a week after the results of Monday's plebiscite are to be announced, a presidential spokesman said.
Gusmao, East Timor's likely first president if the territory does become independent, has been considered a voice of moderation. In Jakarta today, he said that a future government would offer amnesty and reconciliation even to those militia leaders "who have committed the most reprehensible acts."
In the violence here, rampaging militiamen armed with homemade guns and automatic weapons ransacked the headquarters of Gusmao's independence group, the National Council of Timorese Resistance. At least one died in that attack, according to human rights groups.
The violence then spread to neighboring suburbs as independence backers armed themselves with rocks and used machetes and bows and arrows to threaten supporters of continued union with Indonesia. Police moved to quell the disturbances and at first were welcomed by residents, but when they proved unable to contain the violence, the neighborhood people turned on them.
Police fired warning shots and then chased down one young man and shot him in the back near a group of nuns outside a convent and in direct view of reporters. He died within minutes. "These people are supposed to protect us? How can they do that when they are shooting at us?" asked a 40-year-old vendor as he ducked police bullets. Mobs of militiamen then surrounded the journalists, shouting: "Kill them! Kill them!" and "Kill the Australian journalists!" They tried to attack one Norwegian journalist with knives, but he was rescued by police.
The violence raised new questions about whether the United Nations would push ahead with the Monday referendum, which could render East Timor independent after 24 years of Indonesian rule. Asked if the vote would be delayed, Ian Martin, head of the U.N. mission in East Timor, replied, "I can't say now."
[On Friday, Martin said the vote would go forward. "We are continuing to make all the preparations needed to open the polls on Monday," he said, the Reuters news agency reported.]
In New York, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed outrage at the killings and demanded that Indonesian authorities "take immediate steps to restore law and order."
CAPTION: Brandishing a machete, an East Timor separatist taunts independence opponents in clashes in the capital, Dili.