HONG KONG -- With the capital city ablaze and gunfire shattering the night, systematic violence escalated in the disputed territory of East Timor yesterday despite Indonesia's announcement that it had imposed martial law.
Leaders of the movement seeking independence for the region, along with a Roman Catholic bishop who is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, begged the international community to send peacekeeping forces to restore order despite continued opposition by Indonesia, which annexed East Timor 23 years ago and insisted yesterday that it could maintain control.
Indonesian authorities said they had ordered soldiers to shoot anyone violating an unspecified curfew. But a week after 79 percent of the people of East Timor voted in favor of independence from Indonesia, rogue elements of the military appeared to be intensifying a campaign to destroy the region's infrastructure and forcibly relocate its people.
The United Nations Security Council said it would make no decision on a peacekeeping force until it heard from five U.N. ambassadors who arrived in Jakarta today to persuade Indonesia to control the violence or invite in foreign peacekeepers. Once authorized, forces from volunteer nations could be deployed within 72 hours, said U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard.
The United States has told Australian and United Nations officials that it is ready to commit troops to a peacekeeping force, a Clinton administration official said yesterday.
"Very quietly, we said we would assist them if the international community wants to move, the U.S. official said. "Australia would probably be the lead country, and we told them we could possibly throw in with them."
The official said while numbers of U.S. troops haven't been decided, the most likely ground troops to participate would come from a base in Okinawa, Japan. The official said U.S. aircraft would be available from central Japan. A second option for U.S. ground troops would be an Army division in Hawaii, the official said.
"This situation is going to be very tricky," the Clinton administration official said. Indonesian President B. J. "Habibie is in a really shaky position and there's concern now that this could lead to much greater destabilization in Indonesia if the violence in East Timor continues to erupt."
Australia offered to lead a peacekeeping force and contribute 2,000 to 4,000 soldiers. Portugal, France and Britain also said they would support a U.N. force, but no one seemed willing to deploy troops against the wishes of Indonesia.
Witnesses in Dili, capital of the island territory, said armed men believed to be linked to the military set fire to the university, the courthouse and telecommunications facilities. Soldiers marched thousands of East Timorese to Dili's docks, firing shots over their heads and forcing them to board ships leaving the province, the Associated Press reported.
"I don't really know what the difference is" under martial law, said a U.N. official interviewed by telephone from Dili, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The military was "in control before, and they are in control now."
Indonesian military commander Gen. Wiranto again rejected calls for an outside force, saying: "We have all the capability to handle the situation."
Diplomats were increasingly skeptical, however, and some likened the deployment of more Indonesian troops to sending foxes to guard the chicken coop. Wiranto's inability to curb the violence, they said, hinted at a split within the military and a campaign by rogue elements to overturn the vote -- or to cripple East Timor to the point where independence would be irrelevant.
As the international community considered its response and gave Indonesia 48 hours to stop the violence, one-quarter to one-third of East Timor's population of 870,000 was fleeing or being forced out of the territory, said a U.N. spokesman in Dili.
Refugees poured into the neighboring province of West Timor at a rate of 1,000 per hour on Monday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said. Reports of mass killings surfaced repeatedly but could not be verified.
Speaking from New York, Nobel Peace Prize winner and resistance leader Jose Ramos Horta accused gunmen associated with the military of "a Serbian-style emptying of villages."
"Wiranto is getting ignored" by the military's special forces branch, Kopassus, which is led by rival generals, Ramos Horta asserted. "If the U.S. does not intervene forcefully, there is going to be a major humanitarian catastrophe."
The Australian navy said yesterday that it had dispatched a catamaran carrying about 100 troops into international waters off East Timor, 400 miles north of Australia, to evacuate Australian nationals if necessary.
Indonesian police, meanwhile, fired automatic weapons at the United Nations office in the eastern town of Baucau, U.N. officials said. The Associated Press said 200 U.N. workers and 2,500 East Timorese were trapped inside.
More than 100 U.N. staff and aid workers, as well as the territory's spiritual leader, Bishop Carlos Ximenes Belo, were airlifted yesterday out of Baucau to Darwin, Australia, but a U.N. spokeswoman said the gunmen prevented any U.N. workers who were East Timorese natives from boarding the flight.
Belo, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with Ramos Horta, said he would fly to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II. "Now, more than ever, we need an international peace force," Belo said.
Belo's home was shot up Monday and thousands of people who had sought shelter there were herded away.
A U.N. official interviewed by telephone from Dili said all eight regional U.N. offices had been forced to close, and 300 international U.N. staff, of an original 1,200, remain.