The United Nations secretly evacuated its besieged headquarters in the East Timorese capital of Dili early this morning, moving under heavy guard and through the smoke from burning houses to board 11 Australian military transport planes to Darwin, on Australia's northern coast.
The several dozen departing U.N. staff members took with them more than 1,500 displaced East Timorese, who had taken shelter inside the compound more than a week earlier. The U.N. employees had declined to join an earlier evacuation, opting to remain at the headquarters in hopes of protecting the East Timorese from rampaging militias and their allies in the Indonesian army.
The United Nations said the decision to evacuate was made after living conditions at the compound became untenable, with food and water in short supply, with some of the displaced people sick and with the threat that typhoid might sweep through the makeshift camp.
East Timor erupted in violence after an Aug. 30 referendum in which residents voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia, instead of autonomous status within the vast archipelago. Anti-independence militias, who were formed, armed and supported by hard-line elements of the Indonesian military, mounted a terror campaign before the vote, and intensified it afterward, with military participation. Indonesia invaded East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, in 1975 and annexed it a year later, initiating a brutal occupation that is believed to have cost 200,000 lives. Indonesia's occupation has not been recognized internationally.
In Darwin, several of the children who arrived from East Timor today were diagnosed with chicken pox, others with tuberculosis, and one woman gave birth. Darwin has erected a tent city to house the displaced people until they can be repatriated to East Timor.
Almost immediately after the evacuation, militiamen entered the U.N. compound and looted it bare. Office equipment and computers were taken and vehicles were trashed by the soldiers, said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard in New York.
There were reports that the buildings in the compound were set on fire, but Eckhard said he was told that it was not the compound but a small nearby house that had been burned.
David Wimhurst, the U.N. spokesman in Darwin, said he was not surprised at the speed with which the militias looted the compound. "Every single building we've ever occupied in Dili has been destroyed," he said. The looting of the last compound today, he said, demonstrated how even under martial law conditions, the Indonesian military--often working alongside the militia--has "certainly failed to protect our property."
The United Nations left behind in Dili just a dozen military liaison officers, led by a Bangladeshi brigadier general, who have moved to the Australian consulate, according to Eckhard. The plan now, officials said, is for the staff of the U.N. mission in East Timor to remain in Darwin until international peacekeepers arrive and can take back the streets from the militias and their army and police backers.
In Rome, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said about 7,000 people have been killed and 100,000 forcibly relocated to western Timor since the militias stepped up the violence in response to the vote for independence.
It was still uncertain how soon the peacekeepers might arrive. On Sunday, Indonesian President B.J. Habibie buckled under intense international pressure--including a temporary cutoff of arms sales from the United States and Britain and the effective suspension of badly needed economic aid--and agreed to allow armed peacekeepers to enter East Timor to work alongside Indonesian troops in restoring security.
But Indonesian officials at the United Nations were still grappling over the details of the arrangement, specifically the composition of the incoming force, its command structure and the nature of the peacekeepers' relationship with the 25,000 or so Indonesian soldiers and policemen still in East Timor.
While the discussions went on in New York, there were reports that the violence was continuing in East Timor.
The newly freed Timorese independence leader, Xanana Gusmao, told journalists the militias had attacked two of the mountain base camps of his Falintil guerrilla group. Gusmao said the camps at Ermera and Bobonaro were attacked, and at least one guerrilla was killed and another wounded. Gusmao said the reports came from his field commander, Taur Matan Ruak.
The Falintil guerrillas, who have waged a 24-year struggle for independence from Indonesian rule, have remained in four designated camps since signing an agreement in May to end hostilities before the referendum.
The guerrillas have refrained from entering the fighting that exploded after the vote. But they have been sheltering thousands of people, including priests and nuns, who fled to the Falintil camps for protection.
Falintil is believed to have effective control over East Timor's inhospitable eastern mountain ranges. But it has maintained restraint because the poorly armed guerrillas, who number no more than 1,000, would be no match for the 25,000 or so Indonesian soldiers and police in East Timor if they engaged in open battle.
Some analysts said the militias and the army may have been trying to lure the guerrillas from the mountain redoubts, encircling their camps and cutting off their food supplies in an attempt to deal a final blow to the rebels before East Timor becomes independent.
Gusmao said the guerrillas would maintain their cease-fire, but he called on the international community to send peacekeepers without delay. "I am calling for the forces to come as quickly as possible to East Timor, to save our lives," he said.
Meanwhile, the political fallout from the crisis continued in Jakarta, with more than a thousand student demonstrators battling police outside the parliament building. The police used tear gas and rubber bullets against the students, who called for Habibie's resignation and blamed the military for what they said were ongoing human rights abuses in East Timor.
There have been anti-Western demonstrations in recent days, mostly directed against Australia, which is set to lead the peacekeeping contingent. The anti-Australian rhetoric continued today, with several politicians and others joining in the call for the U.N. force to be predominantly Asian.
Habibie, meeting with European ambassadors, repeated that he was imposing no conditions on the peacekeeping force.
CAPTION: East Timorese families crowd aboard an Australian air force plane for the flight to Darwin. A number of children among the evacuees were found to have chicken pox or tuberculosis.