Two weeks ago, no one but a few South-East Asia specialists had heard of East Timor's militias but suddenly they have become the subject of the highest-level international concern. All year, ever since the preparations began for Monday's poll on East Timorese independence, pro-Indonesian militia groups such as Aitarak have been trying to sabotage it.
In April, more than 25 people were massacred in a church in the town of Liquisa. A few days later, the son of a leading independence campaigner was murdered in Dili. This week the terror, violence and killing reached its climax.
Beginning on the day of the referendum itself, militia gangs have taken control of regional towns all over East Timor. Placido Ximenes was one of the few militiamen to die this week, when he was stabbed in a suburb of Dili. Overwhelmingly it is pro-independence supporters who have been the victims.
In Dili and Suai yesterday people were locking themselves in their homes as fires and gunfire raged outside. Fifty-four UN officials fled the town of Maliana after an all- night rampage of arson and shooting in which two local UN drivers were stabbed to death, with five others thought to have been murdered.
In cabinet rooms and foreign ministries from London to Tokyo, there is talk of sending in international peace-keepers and rescuing foreign nationals. The self-important thugs in the silly uniforms are holding the world to ransom.
In a panelled room on the Dili seafront last week, a portly man named Herminio da Silva da Costa set out the militias' view of themselves. His business card describes him as chief of staff of the Armed Forces for the Integration Struggle of East Timor , an umbrella group for militias in different parts of East Timor. Mr Da Costa compared his co- ordinating role to that of the Nato secretary general. Some dozen or so member militias operate in different towns in East Timor under names including the Bats, the Scorpions and the Red and White Iron.
He claimed to have 15,000 active members, with reserves of 150,000, all vehemently opposed to separation from Indonesia. One thousand guns are at their disposal, with many more machetes, spears and homemade muskets.
Mr Da Costa says this morning's announcement of the referendum result will show at least 80 per cent in favour of autonomy under continued Indonesian rule; a majority in favour of independence, which everyone else expects, will prove the UN has fixed the result: "If Unamet [UN Assistance Mission in East Timor] announces that the pro- independence side has won the ballot," he said, "I promise it will be civil war."
Analysts present a less impressive picture of the militias. According to a diplomat, the total number of active and committed militia is a few hundred at most; the rest have been paid or press-ganged into joining up. Their leaders are a handful of East Timorese, some disaffected former members of the independence opposition, others businessmen, politicians or gang leaders with a financial stake in continuing Indonesian rule. "There are between twenty and fifty people who really matter," the diplomat said. "If you took them out, you would solve the problem."
Why, then, are they wreaking such devastation? The truth is that they are artificial creations of the Indonesian army, which opposes East Timorese independence. "They are directed, supported, and trained by the military and there are military guys right in there among them," said a diplomat.
This partly explains why the Indonesian police in East Timor, the sole guardians of security during the referendum, are so reluctant to prevent their activities. "That's why the police can't fire on them," said another foreign official. "Because they would end up killing their own people."