Militia forces massing for Timor attack

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PEACE-KEEPERS in East Timor are being forced to speed up the deployment of troops after reports that large numbers of pro-independence militia men are massing on the border with Indonesian West Timor in preparation for an attack.

In the capital, Dili, road-blocks with mounted machine-guns have been set up by British Gurkhas, and barbed wire has been laid outside the town's largest hotel, amid widespread rumours of imminent violence.

Few details were available yesterday, but Major-General Peter Cosgrove, the Australian commander of the International Force East Timor (Interfet), confirmed that he had received reports of intense militia activity in West Timor, where 150,000 East Timorese civilians are believed to have been forcibly moved. According to one report hundreds of militiamen were gathering in Liquica, west of Dili, carrying home-made guns, old-style Nato rifles, wearing camouflage uniforms and red berets and chanting "We want war."

"We're going to monitor carefully their progress," said Maj-Gen Cosgrove. "Of course, until they get to the border the mandate does not have any sway. I am looking to accelerate the arrival of troops."

The Indonesian government lifted martial law in East Timor yesterday, saying the multinational force was now in charge. "Considering the security in East Timor which is getting better we have reviewed this emergency," the Justice Minister, Muladi, said.

Despite Mr Muladi's move, tension in Dili has been mounting since Tuesday, when Sander Thoenes, a Dutch journalist employed by the Financial Times, was murdered by Indonesian soldiers in the suburb of Becora. Although 3,000 Australian and British troops have now arrived in East Timor, there were a number of violent incidents yesterday and large areas of the city are virtual no-go areas for the unarmed.

Armed militia men, including one man brandishing an AK-47, were seen at a roadblock in an area where foreign journalists had gone to investigate reports of a mass grave. British Gurkhas, meanwhile, pursued a convoy of Indonesian soldiers after automatic gunfire was heard close to the United Nations compound. In other incidents, a group of Royal Marines rescued a suspected militia man from a mob of independence supporters, and a Gurkha doctor treated a young Timorese man who had been fired upon by black-shirted members of the Ahi militia.

Bursts of automatic gunfire were heard intermittently throughout the day, and smoke rose from several fires, including a military office that was burnt by its occupants as they prepared to leave Dili.

For several days, Indonesian soldiers have been seen transporting large quantities of heavy machinery, computer equipment and stores out of Dili by road or ship, as well as goods that appear to have been looted from abandoned Timorese homes. At one army post, soldiers have been selling motorbikes and supplies of food and water to journalists staying in the nearby Hotel Turismo. A cordon of barbed wire was placed around the hotel yesterday, and sandbagged machine-gun nests have been set up on the roof.

The local military commander, Major-General Kiki Syahnakri, has told Interfet that his troops are withdrawing from East Timor, but there is concern that the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) may continue to operate in the hills in small units or through proxy militias.

Apart from the second city, Baucau, where more than a hundred Australian soldiers are based, the peace-keepers have not established themselves outside Dili.

The chaotic situation is impeding the investigation into the death of Mr Thoenes, whose body has been flown to the Australian city of Darwin for a post-mortem examination. It is also hampering the humanitarian effort to relieve the hundreds of thousands of East Timorese who have been living in the mountains since last month's referendum on independence, after being driven out of their homes.