JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Bloody clashes are hitting the troubled territory of East Timor daily, forcing thousands to flee their villages, aid workers and locals said Friday.
The divisions are fueling fears of a return to civil war if Indonesia goes ahead with a proposal, made on Wednesday, to consider letting the former Portuguese colony go possibly as early as next year.Fighting between rival groups of pro and anti-Indonesian Timorese has killed at least six people this week in the district of Kovalima.
"I've heard reports that 4,000 people sought refuge at the church in Suai to escape the killings," one source told Reuters by telephone from Dili. Suai is the Kovalima district capital.
Indonesia's official Human Rights Commission estimates at least 50 people have died in six months in fighting between rival Timorese factions.
Pro-Jakarta Timorese say they will fight to protect themselves if Indonesia walks away from its savage 23-year rule on the eastern half of Timor island.
"If East Timor decides to be independent, then we are ready . . . we are ready to fight," said Basilio Dias Araujo, a pro-Indonesia activist working in the governor's office.
"We just don't want to die."
Araujo said pro-Indonesia groups were armed but added they were part of the militia trained by the Indonesian military.
He said Dili was calm, but "everyone is just confused."
Independence groups have handed out leaflets in the capital urging Indonesians who have migrated from other parts of the country to remain calm.
Bowed by world pressure, Jakarta on Wednesday reversed its 23-year stand of bitterly fighting any attempt -- military or diplomatic -- to force it to grant independence to East Timor.
Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said the government may ask the nation's top legislative body, the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR), to consider letting East Timor go after the June 7 election if Indonesia's offer of special autonomy is rejected.
But the government, which is formed in the lower house (DPR), could well change after the polls, the predominantly Moslem nation's first taste of democracy in more than four decades.
Indonesia, which already ruled West Timor, invaded the predominantly Catholic eastern half of Timor island in 1975 after the Portuguese suddenly pulled out and civil war broke out.
Jakarta annexed the territory the following year, a move not recognized by the United Nations.
East Timorese are divided over the future of their restive homeland. While analysts believe a majority favor independence, there is still a substantial and powerful group wanting to remain part of Indonesia.
Top economics minister Ginandjar Kartasasmita said in Davos, Switzerland, on Thursday independence for East Timor could come as early as next year if the parliament in Jakarta approved.
Ginandjar told Reuters Television the government would recommend independence for East Timor to parliament, saying this was part of the drive for democracy in the post-Suharto era.