Pro-Indonesian militiamen armed with automatic rifles, pistols and machetes attacked a neighborhood around the United Nations headquarters here today, shooting, burning houses and sending hundreds of panic-stricken residents--along with three dozen foreign journalists--scrambling over the walls of the U.N. compound to safety.
At least one person was confirmed dead in the melee, which came two days after a referendum on whether East Timor would remain part of Indonesia. A television crew filmed a man being hacked for several minutes by a half-dozen militiamen with machetes. His condition was not known.
Journalists were also targeted. An Australian reporter was threatened with a rifle and escaped by jumping into a pond and hiding, submerged, until he was rescued by a policeman on a motorcycle. A Washington Post reporter was hit on the back with the blunt side of a machete, and was able to run and hide inside a parked van before clambering over the U.N. wall.
At one point, some youths in the neighborhood, whose population largely favors East Timor's independence from Indonesia, armed themselves with rocks and crude firebombs made of bottles filled with nails. But they were no match for the well-armed militias with their automatic weapons. About 200 people, many of them women and children, packed into a U.N. building where they recited prayers and sang hymns.
The siege lasted for more than 90 minutes before Indonesian police--who are charged with providing security in East Timor--arrived and took control of the streets. Armed Indonesian police normally guard the U.N. compound, but only three were on hand when the shooting began. When reinforcements arrived, police officers also clashed with the militias, firing their automatic weapons to chase them away.
The U.N. has its own police in East Timor, but they are unarmed and act only as advisers to the Indonesian police. But today's militia violence, and the inability or unwillingness of the police to contain it, is likely to renew calls for the United Nations to send armed peacekeepers to East Timor, an event the Indonesian government has consistently opposed.
"The United States is deeply concerned over this state of affairs on the ground in East Timor," said State Department spokesman Phil Reeker.
Although the U.N. compound was never directly attacked, the shooting and burning just outside the gates appeared to be a brazen show of force by the militias, just two days after the U.N.-sponsored referendum that is expected to heavily favor East Timorese independence. The militias, with backing from the Indonesian army, strongly oppose independence, advocating instead a broad autonomy for East Timor within Indonesia. The results of the referendum are expected to be announced within days.
Since Monday's largely peaceful voting, there have been signs that the U.N.-sponsored process, designed to bring an end to the long-running dispute over East Timor's status, was starting to unravel. The armed militias have reappeared on the streets, setting up roadblocks and harassing passing vehicles. They killed a U.N. employee Monday, and two others are missing and believed dead. And the pro-Indonesian political factions opposed to independence have boycotted U.N. talks aimed at fostering reconciliation between the warring camps.
The anti-independence side has said it might reject the results of the referendum, which could plunge the country into full-scale civil war. Although the vast majority of East Timorese are believed to support independence after 24 years of Indonesian military occupation, the anti-independence militias are well armed and are known to have backing from hard-line elements of the Indonesian military.
Fearing a slide into anarchy, East Timorese scrambled to leave the territory tonight, crowding onto a dock and looking for space on the next passenger ship out. Eurico Guterres, who commands the Aitarak, or "Thorn," militia, has said his men will block any East Timorese trying to flee as a way to force those "political elite" who voted for independence to stay and suffer the consequences of what he predicted would be civil war.
In another bold show of force today, Guterres led his militiamen at the head of a huge funeral cortege for a member said to have been killed last weekend by pro-independence forces. The funeral became a militia rally of sorts, with several hundred militiamen in their characteristic black T-shirts and berets, standing at attention and then saluting as the body was lowered into the ground.
The calls for an international peacekeeping force escalated even before the attack outside U.N. headquarters. The British charity Oxfam said in a statement that the most recent violence showed "some kind of peacekeeping force is needed now, not after hundreds more have been killed in the retribution that will follow a vote for independence."
The Australia East Timor International Volunteers Project, a coalition of aid groups that sent observers here for the voting, called for "an armed international peace enforcement or peacekeeping mission under the auspices of the United Nations."
Just before the vote, a U.S. congressional delegation led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) also called for international peacekeepers to be sent urgently to East Timor to end the militia violence.
Some Timorese activists agreed. "What we need is a peacekeeping force--I feel that is the only way it can be resolved," said Aniceto Gutteres Lopes, a human rights lawyer and director of the Legal Aid, Human Rights and Justice Foundation. "The situation is getting worse. The militias are in control of the towns, and there's no guarantee the police will take care of it."
The Indonesian army, he said, "whether or not they win [the referendum], must save face. That is why they may not accept the result. We're afraid the militias now fear they are going to lose. Is the army going to be responsible for the situation here?"
CAPTION: Two days after participating in independence/autonomy referendum in East Timor, residents of Dili neighborhood flee rampaging militias. During the 90-minute siege near U.N. compound, more than 200 people sought safety in facility.