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Despite Fear of Militia Violence, East Timor Voters Come To Vote

By Keith B. Richburg

Ignoring threats of militia violence and predictions of civil war, an overwhelming majority of East Timorese walked for miles and waited for hours to vote for the first time on whether to remain a part of Indonesia with broad autonomy, or become one of the world’s newest -- and poorest -- nations.

U.N. officials, who organized Monday’s referendum, estimated the turnout at more than 90 percent of 439,000 registered voters, suggesting that the anti-independence militia’s months-long campaign of terror and intimidation was not enough to keep people away from the polls.

The voting was marred by the stabbing death of a Timorese U.N. worker at Ermera just after the polls closed. Other violence, including militia attacks, briefly closed seven of the 200 polling stations in East Timor, but U.N. officials said no one was prevented from voting, and all the stations reopened.

The result is expected to be announced in a week, after it is reviewed and certified by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. But analysts said the high turnout across the territory of 800,000 people -- even in volatile western towns like this one, which is considered a militia stronghold and a bastion of pro-Indonesian sentiment -- suggested that the vote would be heavily for independence.

Concern for security remained high as militia leaders, who enjoy backing from elements in the Indonesian army, continued their threats against the prospect of independence and mounted an intimidating presence at some polling stations.

Election observers cited apparent instances of voter bribery by the militias.

“One thing is manifestly clear,” said Jamsheed Marker, the secretary general’s special representative for East Timor, “whatever the outcome of the ballot, today the eagle of liberty has spread its proud wings over the people of East Timor.”