Indonesian police fire on protesters

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The Independent Online
BEFORE THE eyes of the world, Indonesian police yesterday fired on a group of 40 peace protesters in a central shopping area of Jakarta, just across from the offices of the United Nations, sending them stampeding for cover into a McDonald's and a Hard Rock Cafe. One man was wounded.

The incident came within hours of the UN Security Council deciding to send troops to East Timor. Earlier, a smaller group of militia sympathisers protesting at East Timor independence blocked access to the British embassy, demanding the ejection of Xanana Gusmao, the independence leader, who has taken refuge there.

The capital simmered with tension before the first landing of foreign troops on what Indonesians consider their territory since the Second World War. The atmosphere is also being fed by growing intrigue as to the likely fate of President BJ Habibie, hobbled by the East Timor debacle, who faces re-election when parliament reconvenes next month.

While the police responded to the peace protest with disproportionate violence, officers at the British Embassy looked on indifferently as the anti-independence activists shinned its perimeter walls and placed Indonesian flags in the barbed wire on top.

Each day sees small bursts of street agitation around the capital. So far they have come nowhere near matching the demonstrations in May last year, which saw hundreds killed and President Suharto forced from office. But they could multiply and spawn fresh bloodshed.

The weakness of Mr Habibie is fuelling tension in Jakarta. East Timor aside, he has been implicated this week in a scandal, involving a multi- million kick-back allegedly paid by Bank Bali to his re-election fund in return for government support in clearing its debt. Students are also angry about a proposed security law that would shield the military from prosecution for human rights violations.

There are reports suggesting General Wiranto, the armed forces chief, who has been blamed for the East Timor carnage by much of the outside world, may be preparing to stand down. Somewhat incredibly - at least to those watching this political theatre from afar - he may mean to present himself as the ruling Golkar party's presidential nominee instead of Mr Habibie.

Admiral Widodo, who would succeed General Wiranto, proposed postponing the coming parliamentary session, ostensibly to allow tension to abate. But that could exacerbate the crisis. It would not only plunge the presidential election into doubt but also delay a vote that is required to formalise the secession of East Timor.

For an hour yesterday the anti-independence protesters chanted outside the British embassy, demanding Mr Gusmao go to East Timor or leave Indonesia altogether. No one recognised the ambassador, Robin Christopher, who arrived at the embassy and had to squeeze through the crowd to get inside.

Banners plastered on the embassy walls had messages like "English don't defend Gusmao", and a flag of the CNRT pro-independence party in East Timor was set alight. One of the protesters, Fernando Vieira Soares, said Mr Gusmao was responsible himself for "destroying the people of East Timor". Asked what fate would await the rebel leader if he went to East Timor, Fernando replied with blank matter-of-factness: "We will kill him."