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E. Timor Violence Could Derail Talks

February 5, 1999

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ An escalation in fighting in East Timor could jeopardize U.N.-sponsored peace talks on the disputed territory, a top U.S. official said Friday.

Tensions between rival groups have risen in the former Portuguese colony following an offer last week by Indonesia to consider independence for the territory it invaded in 1975.

Pro-Indonesian activists in East Timor, some of them armed, have warned that civil war could erupt if Indonesia pulls out troops. When the Indonesian military moved in nearly a quarter-century ago, fighting between East Timorese had left their homeland in disarray.

``If the situation on the ground deteriorates, it could overtake the negotiation process,″ said Stanley Roth, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

The U.S. government is not involved in talks on East Timor but there has been U.S. congressional pressure on Indonesia to allow the East Timorese to determine their political future.

Talks between Indonesia and Portugal, which the United Nations still considers the administering power in East Timor, have made progress in recent months.

The talks have focused on an Indonesian offer of autonomy for East Timor, which has been plagued by separatist rebel violence and human rights abuses.

But the Indonesian government has said it is willing to consider giving up control over the territory.

The fear of civil war in East Timor, Irian Jaya and Aceh provinces has prompted the governor in Aceh to suggest that Indonesians consider becoming a federation of states.

``In order to maintain peace ... I suggest that a conclusion for the state would be a federal system,″ the official Antara news agency quoted Aceh Gov. Syamsuddin Mahmud as saying.

Villagers in Aceh, on Sumatra, on Friday were searching for at least 20 residents who were reported missing after a deadly clash between police and separatist protesters on Wednesday.

Johny Wahab, chief of the military in North Aceh, was quoted by Antara as saying that seven people were killed in the clash.

But it was still not clear whether the victims were shot by the soldiers or by the separatist rebels of ``Free Aceh Movement,″ he was quoted as saying.

Witnesses have claimed that those killed Wednesday were shot by security forces. The local military has set up a fact-finding team to investigate, Wahab said.

At least 20 people remained missing Friday, human rights lawyers said. It was not known if any of them were in police detention, and villagers who feared they were dead searched a river bank for bodies.

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