Last week, pro-Indonesia militiamen killed dozens of people who had taken refuge in a Catholic church in the East Timor town of Liquisa. The government says 25 people died in the most recent burst of violence in the troubled province; human-rights groups say the number of victims is more than twice that number. Either estimate makes the killings — the worst since government troops opened fire on proindependence demonstrators in 1991 — a massacre.

The violence in East Timor has been echoed elsewhere. Fighting between Muslims and Christians in eastern Indonesia has claimed more than 200 lives since January. In Borneo, 200 lives were lost last month as a result of ethnic clashes. Indonesian society is being stretched to the breaking point.

The causes of the violence are many, but the economic crisis has compounded the stress. No one knows who is behind most of the killings, but suspicions that Indonesian armed forces are involved are rising. The attacks have escalated in both frequency and intensity in recent weeks. The government’s inability to stop them, and its unwillingness to disarm the militias, fuel concerns that factions within the leadership see profit in the violence. The breakdown in law and order will strengthen calls for the military to take control, delaying — if not canceling — plans for democratic elections this summer. The call to take up arms by East Timor rebel leader Xanana Gusmao only throws gasoline on the fire.

After the Liquisa murders, U.N. officials warned that a planned referendum on East Timor’s future status would be held only if peace was restored. Clearly, a renewed commitment to dialogue is needed. Fortunately, East Timorese leaders have reinterpreted Mr. Gusmao’s statement, claiming he was only calling for “self-defense.” Talks in London between independence leaders and the Indonesian military are continuing. They would be given a boost by an unequivocal condemnation of the violence by the government and concrete steps to disarm the militias. An independent inquiry into the Liquisa killings would also help restore badly damaged trust. But steps must be taken quickly: The cycle of violence is intensifying.

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