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Friday, September 24, 1999 Published at 03:08 GMT 04:08 UK

Eyewitness: The new militia bases

Trucks have brought thousands of pro-Indonesia Timorese to Atambua

By Humphrey Hawksley in Atambua

The multi-national force in East Timor is expected to take some time to secure the whole territory.

As troops advance, the militias are moving into West Timor - away from the United Nations mandate - where they are re-basing to continue their campaign of terror.

[ image: When the refugees get off, the trucks return with armed militia]
When the refugees get off, the trucks return with armed militia
It is a stark inhospitable landscape which is being fought over, almost a desert, and its poverty is so acute that if ever there was an Asian miracle, nothing of it had trickled down here.

We picked up our first personal bodyguard in the provincial capital, Kupang.

At the grim town of Atambua, 10 miles from the border, we were given two more in our jeep and a truck escort in front.

The men were sitting action ready, back to back, face out, weapons across their chests.

"The people are very emotional," explained the local police chief, meaning that the militia were running out of control and looking for revenge.

The media and the UN were their prime targets.

The face of terror

On both sides of the road, outside every shack, red and white Indonesian flags were staked to the ground, blowing in the strong wind like ensigns of a yacht club.

[ image: West Timor houses pro-independence refugees waiting to return]
West Timor houses pro-independence refugees waiting to return
Tents of orange and blue plastic sheeting sprawled across acres of dried mud, such a different refugee world from the neat rows we saw put up for the Kosovo Albanians just a few months ago.

Then when we rounded a corner to the border our bodyguards tensed up and we came face to face with the men who had plundered and terrorised East Timor like an army from another age.

And their families, and their belongings, even a truck coming in with satellite dish so they could keep tabs on the international nightmare they had created.

Basic instinct

Lines of trucks waited at a paint-peeled crossing barrier, some sprayed with the militia logo such Aitarak.

Women and children were crammed on board, clinging to the sides.

[ image: The militias who fled were spared the fate of those staying in Dili]
The militias who fled were spared the fate of those staying in Dili
The militias themselves were masked in balaclavas, or bright scarves wrapped around their faces.

Strange characters of basic instinct, dressed up as if war were a party and all power was theirs.

"We order them to hand over all weapons here," said one of the policemen and they did make a show of taking a handful of clumsy, home-made guns.


But they completely ignored my question, when a truck, emptied of refugees, headed back into Timor, carrying militia armed with modern machine pistols and rifles.

And right then, it became so clear as to what was happening.

[ image: Arriving in West Timor with an uncertain future]
Arriving in West Timor with an uncertain future
Like the IRA with Northern Ireland, the Khmer Rouge with Cambodia, the Timorese militia were setting up bases on sympathetic territory outside their field of battle.

The master-stroke was moving their people with them, more than 100,000 in the past two weeks, doubling the population of Atambua and, in effect, claiming the district as their own.

From there, if they wanted, they could run a highly effective guerrilla war against the multi-national force.

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