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Dili, East Timor -- Indonesian military-backed militia groups have blocked IFET-OP teams from freely moving throughout East Timor on three separate occasions over the last few days. On two of the occasions, militia members threatened the observers with death.
On Monday, August 23, militia members stopped three IFET-OP members, an East Timorese translator, and their driver just outside the town of Namaleso, 45 minutes from the town of Aileu. The IFET-OP team was on the way to investigate an alleged case of politically-motivated arson in the village of Namaleso, about 25 kilometers from Dili, East Timor's capital, when two dozen militia members armed with machetes forced their vehicle to stop. One hundred meters before the roadblock, the group passed approximately 12 militia members carrying machetes, one homemade gun and one submachine gun.
At the roadblock, the militia members surrounded the IFET-OP car and threatened to kill the translator and driver and burn the vehicle. Three Indonesian riot police arrived almost immediately, but they did nothing to intervene on behalf of the IFET-OP personnel. In fact, the police supported the detention of the IFET-OP team by the militias. After about 10 minutes, UNAMET civilian police intervened and, over the next half-hour, persuaded the militia and the police to allow the team to pass, although by that time the team's driver was too frightened to continue. During the discussions, one of the militia members, identified as Domingos Amaral, the kepala desa (the village head, an Indonesian government official) of Namaleso threatened to shoot the IFET-OP members and UNAMET personnel; he did so in front of ten Indonesian police officers.
On the following day, militia members stopped an IFET-OP team at the village of Umatolu (district of Viqueque). The person leading the militia members became enraged when he learned that the IFET-OP team was driving to the town of Dilor. Nevertheless, he allowed the team to continue, but threatened them by saying, "If you come here again, you will be killed."
And on Wednesday, August 25, members of the Besi Merah Putih (Red and White Iron) paramilitary group used their van to overtake and block an IFET-OP vehicle traveling just west of the town of Liquica. The driver of the militia vehicle threatened the IFET-OP driver, pulling him out of the vehicle and, along with other militia members, forcing him into the Besi Merah Putih van.
The paramilitary members then drove off, bringing the IFET-OP driver to a militia post for interrogation. Shortly thereafter, the militia brought the driver to a police station in the town of Maubara. Although the driver returned unharmed, the experience was so traumatic that he has decided that he can no longer work for IFET-OP.
While the Indonesian police in Liquica quickly addressed the concerns of the IFET-OP team by locating the driver and ensuring his transportation back to Liquica, the police accepted the militia members' justification for their illegal actions. The militia members claimed that they had detained the IFET-OP driver because of his poor driving and the resulting threat to public safety -- an account rejected by the IFET-OP members present.
The Code of Conduct of the United Nations Assistance Mission in East Timor (UNAMET), accepted by the Indonesian government, guarantees freedom of movement to all UNAMET-accredited observers, like those of IFET-OP. The international observer project is very concerned about the lack of security for its observers, and the continuing efforts by Indonesian military-backed militia groups to derail the UNAMET consultation process. Furthermore, the continuing and pervasive presence of militia roadblocks has serious implications for the freedom of movement of would-be voters as the August 30 ballot rapidly approaches.
"These events help illustrate why the Indonesian police must immediately disarm and disband all paramilitary groups," says Saskia Kouwenberg, Co-Coordinator of IFET-OP. "More importantly, however, they are manifestations of the profound insecurity felt by the East Timorese people as they prepare to vote on their political future. For this reason, the international community, working through the United Nations, must greatly and quickly increase the security resources available to UNAMET."
On August 30, a UN-sponsored vote will decide if East Timor will continue to be part of Indonesia or if it will be an independent state. Indonesia invaded East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, in 1975, a move not recognized by the UN.
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