As gunshots rang out across Dili yesterday, an anti-independence militia leader warned civil war could break out if fighting with rival separatists escalates. The warning came as witnesses said two people were killed in a clash at a market at Becora, on the eastern outskirts of the town. Troops opened fire on a crowd after militia members said they had been outnumbered by separatist fighters.
The United States said it was "deeply disturbed" by the killings. Australia blamed the Indonesian government for the violence, and Brazil said it was ready to send peace-keeping troops to the territory.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian military and senior militia commander, Jaoa Tavares, said his men had been provoked into violence by attacks and threats made by independence activists. Fighting among rival East Timorese would "not solve problems ... It will, instead, trigger a civil war", the commander said, according to the official Antara news agency.
Indonesia has accepted responsibility for the killings, but militiamen still roamed the streets of Dili almost unchecked. Police turned foreign journalists away from the house where the massacre occurred, though Timorese militiamen moved freely behind the cordon. "We're just obeying orders", said a policeman, Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder.
Dili was in shock. Its Catholic churches were full, as priests led prayers for an end to the violence. By noon, the streets were deserted again. "Of course we're afraid", said Father Dibya of the Motael church. "Some people have fled already."
Saturday's massacre took place in the house of Manuel Carrascalao, a leader of the pro-independence movement. There were 127 people there when the attack began on Saturday afternoon, most had fled militia terror in the countryside.
By chance, Mr Carrascalaoand his daughter Christina had taken refuge in the house of Bishop Carlos Belo, a Nobel prize winner. The militiamen stormed the house anyway, shooting through windows and hacking at terrified people as they hid under a table. Four foreign reporters were chased away. Two of them, both French, narrowly escaped being killed.
The security forces, which initially denied there had been a massacre, say 20 people died in Dili on Saturday, including 12 at the house. All were killed by East Timorese militiamensworn to stop their land breaking away from Indonesia. Bishop Belo counted 13 bodies in the morgue. One was Mr Carrascalao's teenage son, Manuel.
The distraught father was forbidden to take his son's body out of the morgue for 48 hours. "There's a procedure for collecting the body, but there's no procedure for murder," he snapped. Mr Carrascalao and his daughter were seeking police protection yesterday.
Of the 127 in the house, 48 are sheltering in the Dili police barracks, with other refugees. A handful more are being treated in hospitals. This leaves up to 60 people whose fate is unknown. Some are thought to be at the house of Eurico Guterres, a militia leader. Some accounts say that Guterres tried to stop the massacre. But Guterres is no angel. He used to work on covert operations with a notorious Indonesian officer, Prabowo Subianto, and his speeches have done much to inflame the bloodlust of his men. He also likes to threaten journalists.
Indonesia has offered East Timor independence after 23 years of bloody occupation. A referendum on the issue was due to take place in July, sponsored by the United Nations. Many in Dili think nationalists in the army are using the militias to create chaos and stop the vote.
The militias draw their support from the minority of East Timorese who want Indonesian rule. They say they are defending the people from the terror of the independence movement. It is true that there have been some guerrilla attacks recently, but nothing on the scale of the militia violence.
Many pro-Jakarta Timorese are appalled by what happened on Saturday. "I say it is a cruel action which we should condemn," said Gil Alves, a local businessman. He believes the militias are out of control.
The militia drill in public places, watched by Indonesian army officers. Most carry home-made muskets, but a few have army-issue guns. They left behind about 10 cartridge cases when they raided the Dili suburb of Beqora, hours before the massacre. Most of the cartridges were 5.56mm calibre, as used by the Indonesian army.
"We can't fight them because they have guns and we don't," said one of a group of young men milling around in Beqora bus terminal yesterday morning. The young men, who support independence, were armed only with spears and a dart gun. They said they would flee if the militias came back; a soldier watched from a hilltop.
The militias did come back to Beqora later, as they had promised. Riot police blocked them, the first time that the security forces have done anything to curb the militiamen. But the police seem intimidated.
Many observers believe the only way to stop the violence is through international pressure on the army to bring the militias to heel. But this would also serve another of the army's goals - implying that Indonesian soldiers must stay in East Timor to stop the Timorese fighting each other.Reuse content