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Saturday, 4 September, 1999, 08:34 GMT 09:34 UK
Eyewitness: Timor's day of reckoning
Timor referendum
An estimated 98.6 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls
By Simon Ingram in Dili

After 300 years of Portuguese rule and nearly a quarter of a century under Indonesian military occupation, the East Timorese people braved threats of violence and intimidation to cast their vote on the territory's future.

East Timor
Despite some violent incidents before the day of the referendum, it was estimated that about 98.6 per cent of voters went to the polls amid only isolated reports of violence.

Even before dawn on Monday, the steep wooded hills behind the town of Liquisa echoed to the sound of tramping feet.

Some people had trekked for hours from their villages along rocky paths, heading for an appointment none could afford to miss.

At the hilltop polling station at Hatukesi, United Nations staff were waiting for the 4,500 eligible voters.

By 6.30am, most of them were already standing eagerly in line together with their families.

Euphoria

At some polling centres, the mood verged on the euphoric. These were people who had never been offered the chance to decide their own future seized this opportunity with both hands.

Students in Jakarta demonstrate for independence
Students in Jakarta demonstrate for independence
The success of the registration process had convinced UN officials that a massive turnout was possible.

The big doubt was how far intimidation by the pro-Jakarta militias would scare people away.

Near the coastal town of Liquisa, the scene of one of the worst massacres carried out by the militias last April, the atmosphere at the polling stations was much more subdued.

Militias

Members of the red and white Iron Militia, in their distinctive red berets, could be seen circling nearby.

But whatever would happen in the coming days, the UN could take satisfaction from the high turnout.

Kofi Annan's special representative, Jamsheed Marker, could scarcely contain his satisfaction. He said that "the eagle of liberty has spread its proud wings over the people of East Timor".

There are many dangers still ahead. The results must be accepted and a torturous transition phase negotiated.

East Timor's moment of reckoning is far from over.

Links to more Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.


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