Witnesses said at least one man was shot dead through the back of the neck at close range by Indonesian police, who appeared unable or unwilling to prevent the outbreaks of violence. One cameraman was shot and injured and Western journalists were forced to evacuate a hotel in Dili after militiamen rampaged through it, smashing windows and waving rifles and pistols.
The violence throws into jeopardy the referendum, in which East Timorese will be asked to choose between autonomy under the rule of Jakarta or complete independence after 23 years of often brutal Indonesian control.
But last night, officials of Unamet, the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor, were insisting that the violence was isolated and spontaneous, and that the referendum would not be called off. "We are going ahead with our plans for the ballot on Monday," David Wimhurst, the Unamet spokesman, said last night. "This violence will have a very negative effect and people will call for UN peace-keepers and for beefed up security. But we are locked into the process, and we also have a moral obligation to allow the people of East Timor to vote. If we give in to thuggery, then democracy falls. That cannot be allowed to happen."
Ever since January, when the Indonesian president, B J Habibie, raised the possibility of East Timorese independence, there has been intermittent violence in the territory, almost all of it the work of the pro-Jakarta militias. The UN, foreign diplomats and international observers have been unanimous in their conclusion that the gangs are supported and, in some cases, armed and orchestrated by senior elements in the Indonesian military in an attempt to sabotage a free and fair referendum.
Yesterday's violence began after a big pro-Indonesia rally attended by several thousand people in Dili's sports stadium. All morning buses and trucks drove around the town, filled with banner-waving youths wearing pro-Jakarta T-shirts. Some participants in the demonstration, however, said that they were only taking part to protect themselves and their families from intimidation by militia members. "The militias came and said, `Do you want independence?'" Santino Dar Matias said. "When we said yes, they said, `If you vote for independence, we will kill you'."
At lunchtime, a fight broke out in the eastern part of Dili, where militia members brandishing home-made pipe guns and automatic rifles set fire to a house owned by independence supporters.
Within a few hours, at least two men had been shot dead, and there were unconfirmed reports of as many as four other killings in other parts of the town. Last night, the mother and wife of one of the dead men, Virgilio Da Costa Rodriguez, were weeping over his body in Motael Clinic, Dili. He was aged 27 and had become a husband only three days earlier.
An Indonesian cameraman working for Reuters news agency was injured after being shot in the leg, and 30 other journalists were forced to move out of the Hotel Dili after militia men ran through it, waving guns on their way to attack the offices of the National Council for Timorese Resistance, the independence organisation.
The hotel's Australian owner, Gino Favaro, has already moved out his family three times this year after previous death threats. "I saw 15 pistols today, and they were police issue, not the home-made kind," he said. "I was here in 1975 [the year of the Indonesian invasion], but it wasn't as bad as this."
UN staff returned to their accommodation last night in a guarded convoy. Unamet has 271 international police officers in East Timor, but under its mandate they are unarmed and are able to act only in an advisory capacity to the Indonesian police, who are responsible for all security. "The Indonesian police need to sit down and analyse why they were unable or unwilling to control events today," Mr Wimhurst said.
According to Unamet, other parts of East Timor were peaceful yesterday, although the past few weeks have seen high levels of militia activity, especially in areas close to the border with West Timor, the undisputed Indonesian half of the island.
In the town of Maliana, UN staff received reports of militia attacks planned for today and for the night after Monday's vote. But Unamet officials say that yesterday's events appeared to be a spontaneous rampage, rather than a pre-meditated attack intended to disrupt the referendum. "Is this what we expect on polling day? The answer is clearly no," Mr Wimhurst added.Reuse content