Timor militia fights for its survival

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TWO THOUSAND East Timor militiamen paraded with swords and iron bars yesterday, declaring that they would fight against supporters of independence to preserve Indonesian rule over the territory.

"We are ready to ask the Indonesian military to leave us and let the world know that we are still capable of defending the red-and-white flag in East Timor," Eurico Guterres, a hardline supporter of Jakarta, told the assembled men at Mariana, a town west of the capital, Dili, controlled by the militias.

Red and white are the national colours of Indonesia, which invaded East Timor in 1975 and has ruled there ever since with the help of Timorese officials and soldiers. Indonesia said in January that it might agree to let the arid half-island secede, terrifying the pro-Jakarta Timorese who now risk losing everything.

The militiamen have been killing supporters of East Timor's independence and destroying their houses for months. Some are reported by local human rights activists to be carrying semi-automatic weapons issued by the Indonesian army, but they tend to hide them when foreign reporters and camera crews are about.

On Tuesday, several hundred of them attacked a church and a priest's house in the village of Liquica, not far from Mariana. Bishop Carlos Belo, head of the local Catholic Church, says 25 people were killed when militiamen fired into the house.

A local human rights group, HAK, believes that 52 people were killed and their bodies thrown into the nearby sea. It says Indonesian troops were involved in the shooting. The Indonesian army, which portrays the violence as an internal Timorese affair, says only five people died.

The violence has already raised doubts about talks at the United Nations on East Timor's future, even though all sides say they want the talks to go ahead. Jakarta said yesterday that a meeting between officials of Indonesia and Portugal, planned for 13 April, had been postponed to an undecided date because of "technical problems". Portugal used to rule East Timor as a colony.

The militiamen say they are reacting to a call from the imprisoned leader of East Timor's independence movement, Jose Alexandre Xanana Gusmao. On Monday he urged his followers to start an uprising against Indonesian rule. After international protests, Gusmao softened his line. He now stresses that supporters of independence should defend themselves but not attack militiamen or Indonesian troops.