DILI, East Timor - An end to years of tragedy in this tiny province has never seemed so close. It has also never seemed so far.
After more than two decades of bloody rule, Indonesia's foreign minister suddenly announced late last month that his country might consider independence for the impoverished half-island.
But, as United Nations-sponsored talks on East Timor's future continued Monday in New York, the people of the mountain territory appear increasingly divided.
Civilian militias who have armed themselves and vowed to defend East Timor's link with Indonesia are accused in the recent deaths of several unarmed civilians. Independence and human-rights advocates say Indonesia's army has given guns to the civilian forces, whose attacks forced thousands of peasants to flee their villages.
The independence movement is split, too. Some want a referendum on East Timor's future. Others say their nation never legally lost the independence it proclaimed in 1975, a few days before Indonesia invaded.
As many as 200,000 East Timorese, one-third of the territory's pre-war population, died in the ensuing conflict, according to Amnesty International.
Now there are fears of renewed bloodshed.
"We try to convince the military not to distribute guns to the East Timorese, but they have done it. They have distributed some guns to the civilian population during last December and January," said Clementino Dos Reis Amaral, secretary general of the Indonesian National Commission on Human Rights.
Manuel Carrascalao, a prominent independence supporter who was caring for about 200 refugees at his Dili home recently, accused the military of giving more than 3,000 firearms to pro-Indonesian forces. Another 12,000 guns have been hidden, he said.
Indonesia's military commander in Dili, Col Tono Suratman, said only 100 guns had been handed out to help civilians protect themselves from "troublemakers," the Jakarta Post reported.
"Militias are not a problem," East Timor's Governor, Abilio Jose Osoario Soares, said in an interview.
Tension began rising in East Timor in October when three soldiers were killed and separatist guerrillas stole 36 military guns and ammunition. A month later, security forces killed nine civilians near the southern region of Alas, Amaral said.
Other attacks by paramilitary groups and soldiers forced thousands of men, women and children to flee their villages in recent weeks, refugees and human-rights workers assert.
The paramilitaries confront villagers at their homes, "and if we go against them, they will shoot us," said Nicolau Nunes, a barefoot farmer in a soiled orange T-shirt. He said he fled the safety of Carrascalao's home from the village of Gugleur.
In Becora, on the edge of the capital, naked children splashed in a dam below two thatched huts where another 300 refugees stayed last week.
One of them, Manuel Pires, said they walked in fear from their homes in Turiskai village after the army killed three young men.
He told his story on the dirt floor of the hut beneath a picture of Christ that dangled from a nail.
East Timor is overwhelmingly Christian, a legacy of Portuguese colonialism.
Most people in the former Dutch colony of Indonesia follow Islam.
In southern East Timor, almost 5,500 people left their homes in terror late last month after militiamen shot and killed three people including a pregnant woman and a teen-age student. They were suspected of supporting the small band of separatist guerrillas who have resisted the Indonesian army for 23 years, said the church's Justice and Peace Commission, which monitors human-rights abuses here.
In another case documented by the commission, Domingos de Andrade was shot and wounded Jan. 3 when his unarmed group favoring a referendum was fired on by armed Indonesian supporters.
The gunfire came without warning, said Andrade, 20, whose face is twisted and swollen from the militia bullet that smashed into his cheek and left a penny-sized hole in the back of his neck. Three young men died in that assault near Ainaro, outside the capital.
Along dirt paths filled with potholes that seem big enough to swallow a car, in tin-roofed houses hugged by tropical vegetation, supporters of independence are easy to find in Dili.
"We want to be free," one resident of the capital said over cups of rich coffee. Fearful of military reprisals, he declined to give his name.
He said he wants pro- and anti-Indonesian supporters to work together after independence, and blamed the Indonesians for stirring up trouble.
Independence advocates vow to protect the rights of Indonesians who stay in a separate East Timor, but news reports in Jakarta say Indonesian teachers and doctors working in the province have been threatened and attacked.
"We don't have any problem with the Indonesians here in East Timor," said Carrascalao, president of an umbrella group of East Timorese political parties. "Our problem is with the Indonesian military and the Indonesian government."
Indonesian rule in the territory of about 800,000 people has never been recognized by the United Nations.
"We already have independence," said Antonio Tomes da Costa, an organizer of recent pro-independence rallies. With shouts of "Freedom! Freedom!" hundreds of people waved the East Timor flag as they rode trucks through Dili.
Da Costa rejected talk among other East Timorese of a referendum on the territory's future. He said East Timor has technically been a separate state since November 1975, 10 days before Indonesia moved to quash it.
President B.J. Habibie doesn't want a referendum, either. He has said it would be too costly and could lead to civil strife. The current United Nations-backed negotiations are aimed at reaching agreement on autonomy. If that plan is rejected by East Timorese and the international community, Habibie said Indonesia might let the territory go next year.
With tension building, there is concern that Indonesia is setting East Timor up for civil war.
The underground East Timorese front, known as FITUN, urged a United Nations peacekeeping force "to prevent more bloodshed."
Despite talk by Indonesian politicians about a change in status for the territory, power in East Timor rests with the military, a human-rights worker said in Dili.
"They are very reluctant to change the situation," he said. "We live in a power vacuum here."
Ian Timberlake is a free-lance writer from the United States who lives in Indonesia