Anarchy in Timor as poll result looms

WITH HOURS to go before the announcement of the result of East Timor's independence referendum, armed gangs of pro-Indonesia militiamen were shooting in the streets of the capital, Dili, last night.

Towns and villages across the territory were in a state of anarchy, as the militias burnt houses and attacked local United Nations staff unhindered by Indonesian police and soldiers. The UN's regional office in Maliana was evacuated yesterday morning and 54 people, including 14 East Timorese employees, travelled under guard to Dili, after two local drivers were killed and five others were abducted.

"They are burning everything," said one UN official after reaching Dili. "They don't respect anything. They're out of control, they are crazy."

As vote counting continued in Dili, the UN Assistant Mission in East Timor (Unamet) said that the result of Monday's referendum will be announced this morning, at a press conference expected to be broadcast live on local television. The official Unamet radio programme was briefly taken off the air, and the territory's single newspaper was unable to publish yesterday after staff were intimidated by militia violence. Police were called out to East Timor's only TV transmission tower after reports that militias were threatening to sabotage it.

Shooting was heard in the centre of Dili late into the night, after another day of violent disorder in which members of the Aitarak militia burnt houses in the east of the city. Gunfire and arson was also reported in the southern town of Same and in villages in hills above Liquisa, 40 minutes drive from Dili. Two charter planes left the city yesterday, carrying foreign observers, diplomats, and journalists but the Australian government kept on hold plans for a naval evacuation of foreign nationals.

The Indonesian Defence Minister, General Wiranto, was expected to arrive in Dili early this morning, with 1,400 soldiers due to follow as reinforcements. The purpose of his visit was unclear, but foreign diplomats in Dili said that it might bring temporary respite to East Timor, since any obvious disturbances would be an embarrassment to the man ultimately responsible for the territory's security.

Tony Blair sent a message to the Indonesian president, B J Habibie, urging him to enforce order in East Timor as diplomatic moves to dispatch peace- keepers to the territory gathered momentum in the UN. The Foreign Office minister John Battle is being sent to Jakarta as a special representative on East Timor and the HMS Glasgow has been put on standby off Timor to help with a possible evacuation.

This morning's announcement is expected to reveal a big majority in favour of independence after 98.6 per cent of registered voters turned out. Diplomats believe that elements in the Indonesian military want to sabotage the vote by provoking Falintil, the East Timorese Independence guerrillas, who are voluntarily confining themselves to isolated cantonment areas. After fomenting a civil war, the army would then have an excuse to step in to restore order.

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