Dili – The United Nations officially raised its flag in East Timor on Thursday, provoking loud cheers from a crowd of independence supporters and raising hopes of peace in the troubled territory.
"We have waited 24 years for this moment. This is a historic day, and some people say it is the beginning of peace in East Timor," said student Francisco Dionosio Fernandes.
More than two decades after Indonesia invaded East Timor, the United Nations is organising an August 8 vote which will ask East Timorese to choose between independence and greater autonomy within Indonesia.
"Now they have come. It is good for us," David Ximenes, a prominent pro-independence leader who came out of hiding for the flag-raising ceremony, told Reuters.
Some 3,500 independence supporters, some wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the outlawed East Timor flag, shouted their approval as the UN flag rose up the staff, and then broke into protest songs and chants of "Viva Timor Leste" ("Long live East Timor"). A car carrying prominent pro-Jakarta figures was kicked and thumped as it arrived at the ceremony.
The crowd – the biggest pro-independence gathering in East Timor in more than a year – dispersed peacefully after requests from Ian Martin, the recently arrived head of the United Nations mission to East Timor. Martin, a human rights expert, is a former secretary-general of Amnesty International.
Witnesses said two people were arrested after the demonstration. UN spokesman David Wimhurst said they had contacted the police. "I understand that two students were chased and picked up by the militia. We have contacted the police to find out what has happed to these people and find them," Wimhurst said.
UN head Martin stressed that the United Nations would play a neutral role in the vote. "The United Nations will work with all parties impartially and will be objective in its assessments," he told representatives of the Indonesian authorities, the former colonial power Portugal, the church and pro-independence groups.
At a news conference after the ceremony, Martin rejected accusations from Indonesian government minister Faisal Tanjung that the United Nations was favouring independence groups.
Tanjung accused the United Nations of insisting on the disarmament of the pro-Jakarta militias, but not the pro-independence Falintil guerrilla group as set out in an agreement signed by Indonesia and Portugal.
"The question of laying down of the arms was dealt with in the agreement ... On paper that includes Falintil, and I hope that soon in reality it will include Falintil, as well as the Indoneisian security forces and all political groups," Martin said.
The Indonesian authorities recently gave official status to one of the most notorious pro-Jakarta militia leaders, putting him in charge of coordinating civilian security in the East Timorese capital Dili.
Eurico Guterres, leader of the Aitarak (Thorn) militia which rampaged through Dili in mid-April, and more than a thousand Aitarak members were appointed in a letter signed by the government administrator of Dili district.
Before the Aitarak militamen went on the war path on April 17, killing as many as 30 people, Guterres commanded them to "conduct a cleansing of all those who betrayed integration (with Indonesia). Capture and kill if you need," he told his men.
The United Nations declined to comment on Guterres' appointment, saying that they had not heard of it.