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Timor votes for freedom but terror holds sway

IT WAS evening in New York and morning in East Timor, when Ian Martin, the head of the UN in East Timor, walked into the rundown Hotel Mahkota in the capital Dili where the cameras were waiting. The statement took only a few minutes to read aloud, in four languages - English, Portuguese, Indonesian and the local tongue, Tetum. Nobody cheered or wept or punched the air; almost nobody smiled. Outside, the streets were almost deserted.

"On August 30 1999, in a show of courage and determination, the people of East Timor turned out in massive numbers to vote in the popular consultation, expressing their will as to the future of the Territory," ran the statement, which was read out simultaneously to the Security Council by the UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan. "Therefore, in fulfillment of the task entrusted to me ... I hereby announce that the result of the vote is 94,388 or 21.5 per cent in favour and 344,850 or 78.5 per cent against the proposed special autonomy."

In that moment one of the last of the great colonial lies was nailed once and for all. A quarter of a century of Indo- nesian deception, accepted and encouraged by the rest of the world, was erased at a stroke. It should have been a moment of epic jubilation and relief, one of those moments that people remember for the rest of their lives, but rather than a town liberated, Dili yesterday was a place under siege, with a population fearful for their homes and lives, many of them desperate to escape.

No doubt there were private celebrations, as people gathered round radios and televisions in the stone villas on the Dili sea front or the simple huts of bamboo and grass, which are home to many Timorese outside the capital. A doctor told me that in the neighbourhood where he lives, people wept a little and embraced one another for half an hour before events drove them inside. But shots had been reported in the early morning. Less than two hours after Ian Martin's words, people were scrambling for cover in the very hotel where East Timor's freedom was announced.

You take your life in your hands when you step out in Dili these days and late last night, in towns and villages across the territory, the situation was as dangerous and lawless as it has been at any time since soon after the Indonesian invasion in 1975. Last night, UN staff were camping in the floors of their Dili headquarters, after an American policeman was shot in the stomach during the ambush of an evacuation convoy. Journalists and international observers in the rest of the town huddled in nervous pockets in hotels and houses, sealed off from one another by the dark streets and Dili's notoriously unreliable telephone system.

Immediately after the announcement there had been an anti-climatic calm. There were people on the streets, but almost without exception they were fleeing - anxious family groups carrying clothes and food. The problem in travelling by car is not just getting safely from one place to another, but persuading someone to take you there. Many drivers, understandably, are terrified and almost nobody will venture outside Dili.

Opposite the Hotel Mahkota, a long, flat, cargo barge was in dock from early morning, set upon by people loading mattresses, fridges, motorbikes and cars. The journey to Indonesian West Timor would take 21 hours, twice as long as the journey by road. But the road is the road through Liquisa where the UN policeman, now undergoing surgery in Darwin, was shot.

While the ship was loading, the Indonesian police were placing roadblocks in front of the Hotel Mahkota. The barricades were impressive enough - big spindles of timber wrapped round with barbed wire, and backed up by hulking green trucks. But they must certainly rank among the least effective roadblocks in policing history.

The biggest alarm of Dili is not that there are insufficient police, for they festoon the entrances to every hotel lobby in town, and more reinforcements seem to fly in every day. The problem is that the police do not do any policing. For a start, they have to be paid to stay - in one hotel they have taken to adding a surcharge to the daily rate to cover their bribes. Most serious of all, they are in active collusion with the militias causing the terror.

The point was superbly illustrated at the Hotel Mahkota later in the day. Shots rang out close by at 11am. The police appeared to chase and give up. Then in mid-afternoon, a motorbike rider drew up in front of the hotel and smashed the window with a large stick. An hour later, six men with home-made pistols fired them into the lobby. Television pictures show them milling around afterwards, chatting with the impassive law enforcers.

It is easy to think of the militias as aimless psychopaths, but these men are controlled by the armed forces of Indonesia, and Indonesia is not a Rwanda or a Somalia. A subtle controlling intelligence is behind their actions. East Timorese, especially those associated with the independence movement, are open game, but until yesterday, the intention as far as foreigners were concerned was to intimidate - to sow terror without actually bringing down the international opprobrium which inevitably follows the death or injury of foreign national.

With the shooting of the UN policeman yesterday, that appeared to have changed and international policy must change too. Indonesia has been given enough chances and everything has failed - only last Monday the UN special ambassador on East Timor praised the "superb" work of the Indonesian police. Criticism - in the form of the patient, dogged and repeated statements put out by Ian Martin - has also failed. East Timor never was part of Indonesia and the world always knew it - after yesterday's result, it has no excuse for pretending otherwise.

What the territory needs is armed international peacekeepers with a mandate strong and detailed enough to cut through the lies which it is still being fed. The pro-Indonesian side, Kofi Annan said yesterday, "must not consider this outcome a loss ... for there are no winners and losers today." There are losers, of course, and at the moment they are winning.