East Timor militias reject referendum

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THE PRO-JAKARTA militias in East Timor have rejected a United Nations plan for a vote in August on whether the territory should become independent from Indonesia. The militias claim to be defending Indonesian rule in the occupied territory, but they are going against the wishes of President B J Habibie, who has promised to support the vote.

"We reject a direct ballot and anything like a referendum," an angry militia spokesman, John Estevan Soares, said in Dili after a terse meeting with Derek Fatchett, Britain's Foreign Office minister. "We are ready to face any kind of situation, including going to the mountains and fighting for 23 years," he said, a reference to the actions of the guerrillas who have been fighting for East Timor's independence since it was invaded by Indonesia in 1975.

President Habibie supports a vote on 8 August to decide whether the 800,000 Timorese want more autonomy under Indonesian rule, or independence. Sick of army brutality, most are expected to vote for the latter. Local militias have been responsible for killing and attacking anyone seen as pro-independence.

British police are to be sent to East Timor within weeks as part of a UN adviser mission whose job is to help local police to supervise the vote.

Mr Fatchett flew to Dili on Wednesday to see the position for himself. Part of his mission was to persuade local Indonesian army officers, who have tacitly supported the militias, to stop taking sides. "The ballot must go ahead. I said to the militia that if they are loyal to Indonesia, it is a very odd way to show their loyalty," Mr Fatchett said. He was assured by Mr Habibie the day before that his government was committed to carrying out a "fair and peaceful vote".

Mr Fatchett met several men wounded during a militia massacre 10 days ago. Many were hacked with machetes. "These are atrocities reminiscent of a bygone age," the minister said.

He also met Bishop Carlos Belo, the local Catholic leader, independence leaders and human rights activists. The local governor and the Indonesian army commander both told him that they thought East Timor's people were too ignorant to decide their own future. Both men said they would obey Mr Habibie's orders, but there is a clear danger they will not. The army could easily disarm the militiamen.

Many army officers have made their names and fortunes in East Timor and do not want to give it up. Persuading them will be the hardest part of the UN peace process.