Militias force East Timor vote delay

THE UNITED Nations mission to East Timor uncovered a secret cache of weapons yesterday, as speculation increased that the planned referendum on the territory's independence will be delayed due to a campaign of intimidation by pro-Indonesian militias.

A team led by Ian Martin, the head of the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (Unamet), discovered the weapons during a visit to the Liquisa district where thousands of villagers have been driven from their homes by armed members of the so-called Red and White Iron (Besi Merah Putih or BMP) militia. The militias, who support continuing rule over East Timor by the Indonesian government, are accused by local people of threatening to kill anyone who votes for independence.

Yesterday morning the Unamet team encountered a group of Besi Merah Putih in training on the outskirts of the town of Liquisa. The men, who were commanded by a former Indonesian soldier, denied they had weapons, but a UN policeman discovered a cache of home-made guns concealed in a nearby hut.

According to local witnesses, the militia is actively supported by the Indonesian army and police. "We've raised reports of the Indonesian military not preventing actions by the BMP, but actually being involved with them," Mr Martin said in Liquisa. "They are reluctant to acknowledge that all the information we have is correct."

The chances of the referendum going ahead as planned on 8 August are becoming increasingly remote. Unamet itself is in disarray, with key areas of the operation running behind schedule. With only seven weeks to go, the mission has opened only two of the regional centres where voters will register in advance of the referendum. Only a handful of the planned contingent of 270 international police have arrived in the capital, Dili, although 39 are due to land tomorrow. Plans for broadcasting public information films about the referendum have failed to materialise because of a disagreement with the Indonesian state television company.

But it is the activities of the militias which are causing the most concern. "We had reports of ongoing activity by the militia, harassing villagers, destroying personal property and attempting to move people from their dwelling places away from the area," the Unamet spokesman, David Wimhurst, said yesterday. Local people in Liquisa told The Independent yesterday that the militias were threatening to transport refugees across the border into Indonesian West Timor where they would be unable to vote. Local non- governmental organisations in Dili estimate the number of internal refugees to be in the tens of thousands.

Church sources in the Liquisa area said that the militiamen were holding nightly "parties" which young local women are forced to attend. "They come round knocking on doors at 10, 11, 12 o'clock," said one witness, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. "The parents say no, they threaten them. They take the girls to these parties and make them dance, and sometimes they dishonour them."

"Every night these militia men warn us all not to choose independence," said another man. "They say that the Westerners will only stay for two months, so we must not choose independence. If we do, they will finish all of us - children, old men, all."

Jose Ramos Horta, the exiled East Timorese leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, said in Sydney, Australia yesterday that he believed the referendum would be postponed. A final decision is expected to be made by the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, early next week. Foreign officials in Dili say that if the referendum is delayed it will be by only a few weeks.