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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Massacre Threatens East Timor Autonomy

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Gunmen lobbed grenades and fired shots Tuesday into a church in East Timor where 1,500 terrified residents had taken refuge, reportedly killing 40 people.

Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, who gave the death toll, said another five people were shot to death at the home of the parish priest in the town of Liquisa, and that the death toll at the church was confirmed by an Indonesian military commander, the Portuguese news agency Lusa reported.

The bloodshed in Liquisa, 30 kilometers west of the territorial capital, Dili, came amid heightening violence in East Timor, where supporters and opponents of independence from Indonesia have clashed.

Belo, the bishop of Dili and joint winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, told Lusa the Indonesian military chief in the troubled territory, Tono Suratman, had confirmed the two incidents and the number of dead.

Belo said the attackers had not been identified and he had no more information about the killings.

In Lisbon, Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama described the church attack as "barbaric and indefensible,'' and accused the Indonesian military of being responsible.

"We are witnessing premeditated attacks by the pro-Indonesian militia organized by the Indonesian military and sometimes attacks by the Indonesian military themselves,'' Gama said.

The unrest could jeopardize a UN-supervised ballot in July among East Timor's 800,000 people on whether to become an autonomous state within Indonesia or break away completely.

Angered by attacks launched by rival groups, Rebel leader Jose Alexander "Xanana'' Gusmao on Monday ordered his small band of guerrilla fighters to end a self-imposed cease-fire and to resume attacks against Indonesian forces. He also called for a popular insurrection in East Timor.

Until now Gusmao had urged peace and reconciliation in East Timor, which has endured civil unrest and human rights abuses since Indonesia annexed it in 1976.

In New York, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged both sides "not to allow the process to be jeopardized by increasing armed conflict.''

If the East Timorese turn down autonomy in the vote, government officials have said, they are entitled to independence.

Gusmao on Monday blamed Jakarta for arming and training anti-independence militias.

Ghaffar Fadyl, a spokesman for the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, denied the military was involved inunrest in the former Portuguese colony, which Indonesia invaded in 1975.

"The Indonesian soldiers in East Timor are there to safeguard and maintain security in the region,'' Fadyl said. There are at least 10,000 troops in East Timor, 1,250 miles east of Jakarta.

At least 20 people were injured in clashes Monday and Tuesday in Liquisa, prompting many residents to take refuge in the church. Residents said two people were killed in that fighting, but the military could not confirm the report.

Indonesia, which embarked on a transition to democracy after last May's ouster of authoritarian President Su-harto, said this year that it was willing to relinquish control of East Timor.