Outside, on the curving road in front of the compound, a ragged battle was being fought with stones and homemade pipe-guns. A man had been hacked to death with machetes; journalists were scrambling over the walls to escape the pursuing militiamen.
Inside, behind the flimsy metal barrier, 300 women and children were huddling in fear, praying out loud and singing hymns, while UN officials and policemen milled in confusion. Then a new sound was heard, 100 yards away on the road leading past the UN compound - the low rattle of an M- 16 assault rifle, fired on automatic.
All week East Timor has been close to the edge, but yesterday's gun battle has pushed it over. Once again, armed militias have rampaged through Dili, this time at the symbolic centre of international authority in the territory. Once again, they have done so freely, under the eyes of the Indonesian security forces.
Last night the UN Security Council was expected to insist Jakarta do more to contain the violence, while the New Zealand Foreign Minister, Don McKinnon, raised the possibility of New Zealand and other countries sending in a non-UN peace-keeping force if the situation deteriorated.
HMS Glasgow is in the region, off Malaysia, awaiting a possible request to help with the evacuation of British and other international staff working for the UN Assistance Mission (Unamet).
Yesterday's violence began, as it always does here, with rumours. At the Hotel Turismo, where many of the foreign press contingent are staying, somebody had heard that there was shooting on the other side of town. Five-hundred yards from the offices of Unamet my canny driver urged us to go no farther. Ahead, figures could be seen darting and ducking - a couple of dozen boys, throwing stones at a retreating pack of militiamen farther down the street.
A burning house was billowing black smoke; occasional pops could be heard from the homemade guns favoured by the militia - treacherous blunderbusses consisting of a welded pipe packed with nails and gunpowder and set off with a cigarette lighter. The militia seemed to retreat and for a few moments the incident seemed to have sputtered out. Then events began to move very fast.
Far from backing off, the militia had cut through the houses and come up from behind, firing; in a moment, the stone-throwing boys were pelting away from them in all directions. I followed them through the garden of a house, across a jungly field.
A BBC crew found themselves cornered next to a pigsty by men armed with pipe-guns, who raised machetes over their heads; they were spared only when a senior militiaman called them off. With a group of colleagues clutching bags and cameras, I wheezed over the crumbly wall around the UN compound. Within was a remarkable scene of disarray.
The refugees, most of them women and little children, had scrambled over the wall 20 minutes before; at first, UN staff, not realising what was happening, had turned them back. They had been sheltering in the school next door after the militiamen burst into their nearby homes.
"They were wearing masks; they had their faces hidden in black, and they had red and white headscarves," said a young man named Fortunato Fausto Guterres. "They often come - they steal food, rice, TVs, clothes, radios, motorbikes."
Now the frightened East Timorese were packing the hall where press conferences are usually held, on chairs, tables and on the floor.
A young woman at the front was leading prayers and hymns through the public-address system. UN security men, military liaison officers and members of the international civilian police force were peering past the lowered, and hopelessly feeble-looking front barrier. Some thirty journalists inside were exchanging stories of narrow escapes. Two cameramen had the window of their car smashed with a pipe-gun. An Australian magazine journalist hid in a pond after blunderbuss pellets whistled past his head. It was a wonder that there were not more casualties than the one certain death - a Timorese man who was pursued and killed by the militia mob just yards from the sanctuary of the UN.
The film taken by a camera crew shows one of the militia hurling his pipe-gun at him. He falls, and is set on, and stabbed repeatedly by a gang of men with machetes.
At 5.30 the automatic gunfire began. The UN has among its staff several hundred army officers from all over the world and one of them was on hand to identify the sound: M-16s. "There are only two groups of people in Indonesia who carry M-16s," he said. "The Indonesian army, and the people that the Indonesian army give their guns to."
There can now be no doubt that the militias, set as they are on disrupting Monday's referendum on independence, do so with the active and passive co-operation of the Indonesian security forces. The killers yesterday were not numerous, a few dozen at most. Within yards of the Unamet headquarters are both a police station and an Indonesian army base, filled with members of one of the biggest and best-armed military forces in Asia.
But it was two hours before order was restored. From the time the first shot was fired it was more than three-quarters of an hour before the police came to the scene.
The most efficient job they accomplished all evening was ferrying journalists back to their hotels after the streets had calmed down. The same pattern has been seen for months all over East Timor - militias who terrorise and kill, a military which arms and supports them, a police force which ignores them, and a government which promises to act but does nothing. And the greatest stupidity is that it is already too late.
A mile away from the UN compound, behind a substantial guard in Dili's museum, election staff were at work counting the votes cast in Monday's referendum. Almost 99 per cent of East Timorese turned out; no one doubts that they chose independence from Indonesia.
Late last night my brave East Timorese driver came to my room after driving round for hours looking for me; he was shaking as he spoke. "Why do they do this?" he said. "Because the fight is over. It is already done."
Emergency UN meeting,
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