In the capital, Dili, a human- rights group reported that 77 people were murdered by militiamen who went from house to house, dragging out people suspected of supporting East Timorese independence. Late last night militiamen with automatic weapons and grenades were attacking the home of the Nobel Prize-winning Bishop Carlos Belo, where 3,000 refugees, mostly women and children, were sheltering.
United Nations officials were considering the possibility of a total evacuation from East Timor as their headquarters came under siege when guns were fired into the air close by. UN staff huddled in darkness under tables after a hand grenade exploded outside the compound. No UN staff were injured and no bullets entered the compound.
UN rights officials said 150,000 people were believed to have been driven from their homes to take shelter in schools, churches and public buildings, 25,000 of them in Dili alone. Some 1,500 women and children took shelter with the UN after shots were fired near the school where they had taken refuge.
More than 100 journalists and international observers fled Dili on chartered planes yesterday, and 20 of those who remained joined diplomats in the UN after police said they could no longer guarantee their security.
The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said he was "alarmed and dismayed" at the violence. He appealed to the Indonesian government to allow international forces in if it could not restore calm. "If the government of Indonesia cannot get its own security forces to restore order, it should allow the international community to assist in securing an orderly transition to independence in East Timor," he said as he left an EU foreign ministers' meeting to head for Japan.
Apart from marauding militias and hundreds of impassive police and soldiers, Dili was deserted as people huddled in their homes.
Smoke from burning buildings was visible in several parts of the city and eight bodies were reported to have been found in the Catholic diocesan building, also set on fire.
The UN regional office in the town of Suai was evacuated after mobs burned houses and attacked local people, killing at least two with machetes.
Militiamen fired on the 55 staff as they scrambled aboard four UN helicopters sent to evacuate them to Dili. UN officials said they feared another massacre in Suai's church, where 2,400 refugees have taken shelter. Desperation over the situation increased after a brief visit to Dili by members of the Indonesian government, including General Wiranto, the armed-forces commander, and the Foreign Minister, Ali Alatas.
Mr Alatas accused UN officials of rigging last Monday's referendum, in which 78.5 per cent of East Timorese voted for independence. He also claimed that the UN was supporting the independence guerrilla army, Falintil, by supplying them with uniforms. At a meeting with Bishop Belo, General Wiranto insisted that he had asked the militia leaders to stop shooting but that he had lost control over them. Even before the attack on his residence, Monsignor Belo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for his work towards reconciliation, was said by sources to be in despair.
One of the last hopes appeared to be the imminent release of Xanana Gusmao, the Falintil leader, who commands immense respect in East Timor, even among those on the pro-Indonesia side.
He is at present under house arrest in Jakarta, but Indonesian authorities have promised to release him in the next few days.