Militias bring new fear to Timor

TENSIONS ARE rising in the East Timorese capital, Dili, as thousands of pro-Indonesian militiamen pour in for a show of force today. At dusk yesterday the streets were empty as people hurried home to avoid militia patrols, some escorted by Indonesian soldiers.

Three hundred men, armed with sticks, were on parade outside the governor's office. A man in a scarlet shell-suit was inspecting them from the back of a jeep. These men werepreparing to defend Indonesian rule. All of them are Timorese.

The man on the jeep, Eurico Guterres, leads one of several pro-Indonesian militias which have sprung up in East Timor since late last year. The militiamen say they want to defend society against the violence of pro- independence guerrillas. Many people believe they are paid stooges of the Indonesian army.

Questioned by reporters, Mr Guterres' answers turn into a populist rant against the Timorese political elite, particularly those leaders who support independence. "They go to Macao or America and get the pretty girls and come back with enough to buy a Feroza or a Vitara [types of car], then they say they're pro-independence. The people must seize all of them and bring them to justice."

Anyone seen as an enemy of Timorese integration with Indonesia has been threatened by the militias, and some people now hang the red-and- white flag of Indonesia outside their houses to try to ward off the militiamen.

The militias draw support from some of the thousands of Timorese civil servants and businessmen with a vested interest in Indonesian rule, imposed by force in 1975. Some of these men had relatives murdered by left-wing Timorese guerrillas at that time. They are afraid that after independence, they may be targeted again.

"[The militias] have to take over Dili, because this is where all the people of influence are," said Manuel Carrascalao, a local grandee who used to support Indonesian rule but now advocates independence.

Mr Carrascalao is one of the few spokesmen for independence who has not gone underground. He spends the time in his shuttered villa in Dili. He seems unworried by the threats. "I don't think they can kill me that easily," he says.

The militiamen say they are volunteers, defending East Timor from the guerrillas of the detained independence leader, Xanana Gusmao. Two of their men were kidnapped from a Dili bus terminal on 5 April and have not been seen since, they said.

But if they are on the side of the people, why is everyone terrified of them? "The people who are afraid are those who are guilty," says a young militia officer, standing next to Mr Guterres. "If they're not guilty, why are they afraid?"

Some East Timorese believe many of the militiamen were forced to sign up. "They are given drugs so that they don't even know who their parents are," said one hotel worker in Dili.

The militias have been blamed for dozens of killings this year as Indonesia and Portugal, the former colonial power, discussed East Timor's future with the United Nations. The East Timorese were due to vote on independence in July.

The worse the violence, the less chance the vote will go ahead. This would suit nationalist elements within the army which do not want to see East Timor break away. The worst reported atrocity was in Liquica, west of Dili, 10 days ago, where as many as 50 people may have been murdered by militiamen. The official death toll is seven.

The Indonesian army says that Mr Guterres' group are auxiliaries who will work with the police to keep public order. Colonel Tono Suratman, the local commander, said: "For 23 years we've worked to keep East Timor secure. But as you know, there aren't enough police."

But one militia officer said: "We're not working for the government. We're here to defend the people."

Mr Guterres put things more forcefully. In a statement issued this week, he called on people to "destroy the disturbers of integration [with Indonesia] to their very roots".

For anyone who does not support Indonesian rule in East Timor, the message is clear.