Terror stalks Timor as poll looms

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WHEN YOU finally arrive at the United Nations compound in Maliana after a rattling three-and-a-half-hour drive through the hills, the first thing you see on entering the front office is a grey rock which established itself as part of the furniture two months ago.

It is the size of a mango, and it was thrown with enough force to sail through the window, and embed itself permanently in the wall on the far side of the room. Rather than prising it out, the UN staff have left it there, with a white square painted around it - a souvenir of what happened on 29 June and a nervous reminder of what may still be to come.

There are further reminders on the front gate, painted in UN blue - deep dents in the metal plate, caused by similar rocks hurled from close range by local militiamen, orchestrated by the Indonesian army, and fanatically opposed to independence for East Timor. Even by Timorese standards, Maliana is a remote town, but in the last few weeks it has become one of the most dangerous places in the territory.

Next Monday, 24 years after the brutal Indonesian invasion, the UN will supervise a referendum in which the territory's people will finally be able to choose their own independence. The success or failure of that historic undertaking, and the future security of the 800,000 East Timorese, will be decided in places like Maliana. For several months, since before the establishment in May of the UN Assistant Mission in East Timor (Unamet), it has been obvious that senior elements in the Indonesian military oppose the referendum and have been actively working to sabotage it.

Their tools have been organised gangs of local terrorists known as the militias, who have burnt villages, and attacked and murdered independence activists, in an attempt to intimidate the population into voting for continued association with Indonesia. In Maliana, UN officials fear that worse is to come, and are warning of a plot by the militias to seal off the local area, cut power, evacuate their own supporters, and launch a campaign of terror which would make the rock attack look like a harmless amusement.

In the last fortnight, the situation in Maliana has steadily deteriorated, despite repeated pleas to the Indonesian government which, in theory, is responsible for keeping law and order before and after the referendum. Militia members have paraded openly with M16 automatic rifles and home- made shotguns, in breach of election rules, Indonesian law and promises made by their leaders. According to witnesses in Maliana, the local military commander, Lt-Col Siagian, has actively directed and encouraged the militia attacks.

One witness described an incident a week ago, when militia members were seen openly flaunting weapons, and shots were heard throughout the town during a visit by Jamsheed Marker, the UN Secretary-General's special representative in East Timor. Rather than intervening to disarm or break up the militias, Col Siagian is said to have watched it all happen. "He was sitting in the shop on the corner drinking water and eating peanuts," the witness said.

On the same day, the office of a local student organisation was attacked, and the body of one young man, Agusto Martins, was later found with his throat cut after he had earlier been dragged off a bus by militia members. Students are now under the protection of the local police, who are themselves widely believed to be under the control of Col Siagian. "We don't feel safe with these police," said the students' spokesman, Cornelis. "If they were providing safety, there wouldn't have been any attack in the first place."

Few people were to be seen in the centre of Maliana yesterday, in contrast to the situation two weeks ago when buses, market stalls and playing children filled the town green in front of the Unamet office. Some 1,600 people, including young children and the elderly, have fled their homes in fear and are living in the mountain forests above Maliana - they were able to register for the referendum only when Unamet provided escorts for them in and out of the town. Most sinister of all, the relatives of local soldiers, policeman and militia members have been evacuated from the town in large numbers and over the border into West Timor, the undisputedly Indonesian part of the island.

Local people believe that the attack last week was a rehearsal for the period after Monday's referendum when the entire district will be sealed off by road-blocks, the electricity cut, pro-Indonesian families evacuated, and revenge taken against supporters of independence. "I think that the night after voting they will attack," said Cornelis.

There is particular concern about the UN volunteers flown into East Timor to manage the polling stations and to act as scrutineers. According to UN sources, an Indonesian soldier was overheard discussing plans to murder a female volunteer; one woman out jogging encountered a militiaman who drew his finger across his throat. Members of the mission are ready for immediate evacuation, but Unamet does not have sufficient helicopters to fly them to safety - any escape will have to be made by the narrow, winding road.

The Maliana area has a history of foreigners who have come to grief. In 1975, in the neighbouring village of Balibo, a group of five British, Australian and New Zealand journalists were killed by the invading Indonesian forces.

Yesterday in Balibo, young men in pro-Indonesian T-shirts were campaigning by the house close to where the men died. "We are not interested in violence," said their leader, Joao Oliviero. "All our families are staying put."

But recently, when the UN visited the village, the assembled crowd had a different message: "Kami mau perang!" they chanted over and over again - "We want war!"