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Friday, September 3, 1999 Published at 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Journalists tell of Timor terror

Injured: The BBC's Jonathan Head leaves East Timor

BBC staff who have fled East Timor have described how foreign journalists have been the victims of a suspected plan to drive international observers from the territory.

East Timor
The BBC pulled all of its staff out of East Timor on Friday after three days of intimidation by pro-Indonesia militias in the wake of the independence referendum.

Two of the BBC's correspondents in Dili, Jonathan Head and Matt Frei, had been victims of militia attacks in the previous days.

On Thursday, Jonathan Head reported how the militias had entered one hotel used by journalists in the capital Dili.

Flashback: Jonathan Head reports on being attacked by the militias (1 Sept)
Having earlier survived an attack by militias, Jonathan said that journalists now felt they were being deliberately targeted.

"They just entered one of the hotels there, waving pistols around and frankly, I think, most of us had had enough," he said.

Journalists decided to evacuate and try and charter a plane.

"Most of my Indonesian colleagues have already left. It's very sad. East Timor is being abandoned by us," he reported at the time.

Race against time

By Friday morning local time, it was becoming clear to foreign journalists that they were facing a race against time.

[ image:  ]
BBC correspondents reported that militias were setting up roadblocks, taking over several towns and terrorising civilians.

They had already witnessed one man being hacked to death in front of television cameras and journalists felt that neither they or the civilian population were being provided protection from armed forces.

Simon Ingram, the BBC's South East Asia correspondent, said that it appeared as if the Indonesian authorities had "no will and no desire" to bring militias to heel.

[ image:  ]
"There's a strong feeling among observers here that there is an orchestration of what is going on, some sort of plan to drive out the international observers, the UN and foreign journalists out of East Timor," he said hours before leaving.

"So many of the international observers and journalists are back in Dili that we are not really aware of what is going on.

"But what we hear is very unsettling. This is a land slipping into mob rule."

The BBC's team pulled out of East Timor on Friday at 0800GMT.

[ image:  ]
In answers to questions from the public on BBC News Online's Ask the Correspondent forum, Jonathan Head said: "The militias want the world to look away from East Timor so that they can go about their business without intrusion.

"There is no telling what they may do if that were to be the case."

Reflecting on the actions of the militias, he said: "I don't think that they are aware of what they are doing at all. Many of them are not very well educated, some cannot even read or write.

Flashback: Jonathan Head reports on militias entering a hotel in Dili (2 Sept)
"It is very interesting that they target foreign journalists so much, when they have no concept of how we are covering the story.

"None of the people who have attacked me or my colleagues are aware of what the BBC or the other international media are doing. They are being told to attack Europeans, Americans, whites or journalists or people with cameras."

Turning to his own feelings, he added: "I have been following this story for half of my life and one small brush with the militias can't really affect your judgement.

"But it has been very hard to be totally dispassionate. This is a very black and white issue.

"If you are a journalist and you see what the East Timorese have been through, you cannot really be dispassionate.

"You care deeply about East Timor if you are here, most of my colleagues do, and you care deeply about a good outcome."

Journalists staying

One of a handful of journalists remaining in East Timor, John Aglionby of the UK's Guardian newspaper, said that reporters were "completely confined to the capital".

[ image: Exodus: Journalists took joint decision to leave]
Exodus: Journalists took joint decision to leave
He said that reports suggested that the town of Maliana was "completely in flames" though Dili remained secure "for the moment".

"General Wiranto [Indonesia's defence minister] is flying in tomorrow to supervise the result of the ballot," he said.

"But beyond that, no-one can make any predictions whatsoever.

"There are roadblocks everywhere, if you get through one, you are lucky. If you get through two, you are very lucky, but you always get stopped and forced back."

'Correspondent's decision alone'

Praising the work of the BBC's team in East Timor, World News Editor Jenny Baxter, said: "The bottom line is that London listens to whatever the correspondents are saying.

"If they say that they cannot leave the hotel or even feel afraid being in the hotel, then obviously it becomes very difficult to do the job because you just don't know what is happening.

"In that situation, the staff remain in a position of danger but are not able to do the job. It is just not worth putting people in that position. We have to find other ways of doing the story for the time being.

"Our team are keen to get back in as soon as safety permits."

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