The worsening violence drew an unusually swift response from the United Nations. And, after an emergency meeting in New York last night, its Security Council announced that it will be sending an emergency mission of its own members to Jakarta, and possibly also to Dili, the capital of East Timor, to deliver a blunt message to the Indonesian government that it must act to restore security in the province.
Up to five members are expected to go to Jakarta and could be leaving tonight. The British Ambassador Sir Jeremy Greenstock was said to be "available" but it was not known if he would be going. "The UK will support any action necessary to ensure that the people of East Timor see the implementation of the result that they have voted for," he said.
For the Council to dash to a trouble-spot is a rare event in the UN's history. It has happened twice this decade, in 1993 in Bosnia and 1994 in Angola.
The decision underlined the increasing alarm at the situation in Dili, where 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.
"There is every indication that a massacre is taking place, staged by [Indonesian] military forces," Ana Gomes, Lisbon's diplomat to the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, told Portuguese radio. "Over 100 dead would be a conservative estimate."
Last night the Australian defence force said it would evacuate all non-essential UN staff and Australians. UN officials said they were considering an evacuation of their headquarters which came under siege when guns were fired in the air near by. Staff huddled under tables after a hand grenade exploded outside the compound.
UN rights officials said 150,000 people were believed to have been driven to take shelter in schools, churches and public buildings, 25,000 of them in Dili alone. Some 1,500 women and children sought the protection of 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 aircraft yesterday, and 20 of those who remained joined diplomats in the UN after police could no longer guarantee their security.
The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, said he was "alarmed and dismayed". "If the government of Indonesia cannot get its security forces to restore order, it should allow the international community to assist," he said.
Apart from marauding militias and hundreds of impassive police and soldiers, Dili was deserted as people hid. Smoke from burning buildings was visible in parts of the city and eight bodies were reported to have been found in the Catholic diocesan building, also on fire.
The UN 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 helicopters. UN officials said they feared another massacre in Suai's church, where 2,400 refugees sheltered. Desperation 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 the UN was supporting the independence guerrilla army, Falintil. At a meeting with Monsignor Belo, General Wiranto insisted he had asked the militia leaders to stop shooting but had lost control of them. Even before the attack on his residence, Monsignor Belo, who won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for work towards reconciliation, was said 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. He is under house arrest in Jakarta, but Indonesian authorities have promised to release him in the next few days.Reuse content