ARMED militia reportedly laid siege to more than 150 UN staff as they seized control of a coffee-growing town in the mountainous interior of East Timor yesterday, casting a shadow over the success of Monday's ballot.
A day after East Timorese braved threats of violence to vote on their future, pro-Jakarta militias rampaged through the town of Gleno, 25km south-west of Dili, for several hours yesterday and overnight on Monday, erecting roadblocks and burning homes belonging to independence supporters.
The day's violence underlined international fears that pro-Indonesian forces would throw East Timor into civil insurrection as they faced the threat of separation in the wake of Monday's ballot.
Earlier, former Australian deputy prime minister Tim Fischer said three local UN staff had been killed but UN officials said last night only one was murdered by militia – on Monday night and not in yesterday's siege.
Pro-Indonesian militiamen also began ominous patrols yesterday of Dili's airport and sea front, stopping East Timorese residents from fleeing the troubled territory.
Witnesses said about six East Timorese were stopped from boarding their plane to Denpasar and Jakarta. UN sources said police were present but no action was taken by airport authorities until UN officials called for intervention.
Militia members were stopping vehicles at a number of points around Dili, apparently searching for an independence supporter who had allegedly killed a member of the Aitarak (Thorn) militia on Sunday.
Gleno's militia terror yesterday forced 100 foreign staff, including the Australians, and 50 local staff to take shelter for several hours in the town's UN office.
The militia group appears to have targeted for reprisals East Timorese working for the UN, but has not physically harmed any foreign personnel. One local UN worker was stabbed to death in the vicinity of Gleno after the close of polls on Monday.
"We feel very concerned about the security of our local staff but it has to be understood that the force responsible for protecting people in this territory is still the Indonesian police force," UN spokesman David Wimhurst said. UN sources said the police seemed unable to control the situation.
Last night, the Antara news agency in Jakarta reported East Timor police chief Colonel Timbul Silaen as saying police numbers would be boosted in anticipation of a possible violent reaction to the announcement of the result of the ballot, scheduled for about next Tuesday.
At Gleno yesterday, shots were fired in the air as a UN helicopter came into land. The stand-off with militia ended late yesterday after a convoy of UN vehicles, carrying local and international staff, was allowed to pass a militia roadblock.
Despite the resumption of militia activity, UN officials hailed the success of balloting on Monday. They said 98.6 per cent of the 438,000 voters registered in East Timor had cast a vote. By late yesterday, all ballot boxes had been safely returned to Dili and counting was expected to start today.
"The massive turnout is proof, absolute proof, the campaign of intimidation and violence and threats used to try to destabilise this process was an absolute failure," Mr Wimhurst said.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas declared the UN-organised vote had been conducted fairly, but the pro-Indonesia United Front for East Timor Autonomy (UNIF) alleged there had been dozens of irregularities.
Three Australians were detained by Indonesian police yesterday in the village of Zumalai, in south-west East Timor, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said last night.
Sydney-based East Timor activist Andrew McNaughton and two women believed to be from Darwin, Sally-Anne Watson and Jude Conway, were reportedly detained for carrying pro-independence publications.