Indonesian police fire on protesters as peacekeepers prepare to move in

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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 against East Timor's 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, since the Second World War, of foreign troops on what Indonesians consider their territory. The atmosphere is also being fed by growing intrigue over the likely fate of President B J Habibie, weakened 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, some in militia T-shirts, climbed its perimeter walls and placed Indonesian flags in the barbed wire on top.

Each day sees small bursts of street agitation around the capital, although 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 the present unrest could multiply and spawn fresh bloodshed. More student protests are expected today.

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 that 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 from the military. 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 as head of the military, 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 that Mr Gusmao should go to East Timor or leave Indonesia altogether.

No one recognised the ambassador, Robin Christopher, who arrived in the midst of the protest at the embassy and had to squeeze through the crowd to get inside.

One of the protesters, Fernando Vieira Soares, said Mr Gusmao was himself responsible for "destroying the people of East Timor". Asked what fate would await the rebel leader if he went to East Timor, Mr Soares replied, with blank matter-of-factness: "We will kill him."

Outside the nearby Hotel Indonesia, police arrested the respected Indonesian writer and journalist Goenawan Muhamad, who led some 100 protesters demonstrating against military repression.

That, and the brutality of the police tactics outside the UN building, seemed almost designed to provoke still more street anger.