Panic as UN flees lawlessTimor

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The Independent Online
OUTSIDE the Hotel Turismo, where many of the remaining international observers and foreign press in Dili are staying, the shots were getting closer last night. You could hear sporadic firing in the town all day, and when darkness fell the atmosphere in the hotel became a mixture of low-level panic and strange normality.

In the restaurant, people still complained about the wretched food and the warm lager. But from the low roof, a rope had been dangled for people to escape to the Red Cross office next door.

Last night, half smiling at my own anxiety, I moved my bed so as to be able to wedge it against the door in case - just in case - the militias arrived.

Then the latest and the most frightening news filtered through. Yesterday afternoon, an American policeman, serving with the UN as part of their unarmed civilian force, was shot in the stomach as the UN team was evacuating, in a convoy, from the town of Liquisa.

Last night, it was reported that his attackers were not the anti-independence militia men who have already taken over large parts of East Timor, but members of the Indonesian police - the very organisation that is supposed to be protecting the UN police monitors.

The UN will evacuate its main headquarters in Dili, the capital, this morning, leaving only a skeleton staff. Several international news organisations have also chartered flights out and tomorrow evening the Hotel Turismo may be nearly empty. Within hours a situation which was already dire has become completely unmanageable, as the Indonesian authorities have surrendered completely their responsibilities in East Timor.

Yesterday morning, in what should have been a moment of jubilation, the UN announced the results of last Monday's referendum - an overwhelming majority in favour of independence. Almost 350,000 of East Timor's 450,000 voters - nearly 80 per cent - voted to reject an offer of autonomy within Indonesia, vindicating absolutely 24 years of independence struggle in the territory.

In Jakarta, the imprisoned East Timorese resistance leader, Xanana Gusmao, said in the morning: "This day will be eternally remembered as the day of national liberation."

By the evening it had turned into one of the most lawless and dangerous days since the Indonesian invasion in 1975.

Large areas of the western part of East Timor were under unchecked militia control, as the UN evacuated three more of its regional offices, in Same and Los Palos as well as Liquisa. In Dili, the sporadic sound of automatic rifles and home-made guns was heard all day.

Hours after the announcement of the referendum result in its main hall, Dili's Hotel Mahkota was attacked by militia men under the noses of the Indonesian police who were standing guard in front of it. As cameramen and journalists scattered for cover, the attackers smashed the front windows with machetes and loosed off rounds of automatic gunfire at the roof where live TV broadcasts are made.

More news organisations chartered planes to airlift their staff to safety. Thousands of people poured into boats and aeroplanes, or hurried through the streets clutching their possessions to take shelter in public buildings. In a school adjoining the UN's Dili compound, where food supplies are already running short, hundreds of refugees slept amid the smell of rubbish and human excrement.

At the home of East Timor's bishop, Carlos Belo, hundreds of people, mostly women and children, took sanctuary in the garden. "I came at six this morning with my four nephews," said a woman named Valeria. "We cannot go anywhere and the Bishop has told us not to show our happiness about the vote because it will put us in danger."

Men wearing the black uniform of the Aitarak militia roamed the streets freely on motorbikes and in trucks. The Aitarak leader, Eurico Guterres, flew to Jakarta yesterday, promising to press for the partition of East Timor into Indonesian and independence areas. "We may have lost politically but we are not giving up," he said.

Madeline Albright, the US Secretary of State, advised Indonesia to live up to its international obligations. "To do otherwise risks disaster," she said. "It is now time for co-operation and conciliation, not chaos and bloodshed."

Xanana Gusmao, who is set to be released from six years in prison on Wednesday, said: "We foresee a new genocide in East Timor, we foresee total destruction in a desperate, last attempt by the Indonesian generals and politicians to deny the people of East Timor their freedom"