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Attacks in East Timor continue as violence billows out of control

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Bangkok, Thailand

At least 10,000 East Timorese have fled their villages, seeking refuge from violence by pro-Indonesian paramilitary groups, according to an April 9 statement by the Catholic development agency Caritas-East Timor. Many are staying in Catholic churches.

A Catholic church in Liquica was attacked April 6 and a number of people killed and injured. The church was targeted, according to human rights groups, by militia forces opposed to East Timorese independence from Indonesia.

Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize for his efforts to bring an end to the decades-long conflict over East Timor, escaped injury when a machete-wielding mob of pro-Indonesia militia attacked vehicles in his convoy on April 11 after he celebrated Mass in Liquica.

On April 14, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Australian officials believe the Indonesian government has lost control of elements of its forces in East Timor, which lies just off Australia’s northern coast. Australian officials are demanding that Indonesia restore order, according to the report.

Rebel leader Xanana Gusmao has called on pro-independence groups to take up arms to defend themselves.

Nearly 2,500 of the displaced Timorese are in the district of Liquica, said Estanislau Martins of the Caritas-East Timor office.

Some witnesses said that army troops and police joined in the April 6 attack in Liquica. Army officials said troops were simply trying to separate the combatants.

Belo has claimed at least 25 people were killed in the Liquica attack. A human rights group estimated that 52 people died. The military puts the toll at five.

Newspapers in Bangkok on April 11 reported that Belo was suspending talks to promote reconciliation between supporters and opponents of independence in the former Portuguese colony.

“I am delaying the dialogue until the guns are quiet,” Belo was reported to have said.

United Nations-sponsored talks on the future of East Timor between Indonesia and Portugal were scheduled to take place April 22 in New York. At press time, it was unclear whether the violence would delay that session.

The Indonesian government has given conflicting signals as to the future of East Timor. President B.J. Habibe said in January that East Timor could become independent. His representative for the New York talks, however, is suggesting a Hong Kong-style arrangement under which East Timor would enjoy separate status but remain part of Indonesia.

The United Nations is supposed to supervise a vote on autonomy in East Timor in July. Observers fear that escalating hostilities could undermine the vote.

The Caritas-East Timor statement said, “We are deeply concerned for the protection and the life these people.” It called on “human rights lovers” and the international community to continue to pressure the Indonesian government, especially the military, to stop supporting paramilitary groups and to honor measures taken by the United Nations to establish peace before the voting in East Timor in July 1999.

NCR staff and wire services also contributed to this report.

National Catholic Reporter, April 23, 1999