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Monday, August 23, 1999 Published at 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Battle for votes in Timor

The UN is touring villages to inform people of their choices

By Jonathan Head, travelling with the UN in East Timor

United Nations officials say a new surge of violence in East Timor is part of a deliberate campaign by pro-Jakarta militias to scare people away from voting in the referendum on the territory's future.

East Timor
The UN is touring villages to inform all East Timorese about the ballot which offers a choice between autonomy within Indonesia and independence.

Some 4,000 people took to the streets of the capital, Dili, on Monday to show their support for independence.

The BBC's Jonathan Head: " The UN can't be sure the vote will go smoothly"
But outside Dili the militias are still making it difficult for their pro-independence rivals to campaign openly.

Battle for votes

As we drove up into the mountains behind Liquica, the red and white Indonesian flags which are everywhere in the town gave way to posters showing the jailed pro-independence leader, Xanana Gusmao.

In the past this area was bitterly contested by armed rebels and the Indonesian army.

[ image: Militiamen hand in weapons]
Militiamen hand in weapons
Now it's a battle for votes between pro-Jakarta militias and the pro-independence movement.

In this charged atmosphere the UN staff are struggling to ensure that people can vote freely on Monday.

In the smaller mountain villages they are greeted like heroes.

Hundreds of people walk, often for several hours, just to listen to the voting instructions.


Some of the Indonesian police accompanying the UN are also clearly making an effort to win over these largely pro-independence populations, who usually view all Indonesian officials with suspicion.

[ image: The offices of the main independence group have come under fire]
The offices of the main independence group have come under fire
The police are still responsible for security until after polling day. But down in the town of Liquica it's a very different picture.

The UN cannot operate in some areas because of a fear of reprisals against the population by the militias.

After struggling in vain to obtain a guarantee of safety from one militia leader, a UN team resorted to quietly handing out leaflets to the few local people standing by.

Ever since a massacre of pro-independence supporters in April, Liquica has been kept under a virtual armed occupation by the militias.

No campaigning by the other side is allowed. In these areas at least, UN officials admit it will still be very difficult to ensure that Monday's vote really is free and fair.

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