DILI, East Timor -- U.N. forces on Wednesday flew into Indonesian territory to evacuate foreign aid workers after rioters stormed a U.N. office and killed three U.N. staffers, a peacekeeping spokesman said.

Norwegian army Col. Brynar Nymo said four helicopters from the East Timor town of Suai flew to Atambua, West Timor, where hours earlier an angry pro-Indonesian mob attacked and burned the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The four choppers, including two gunships, safely evacuated 54 people to East Timor's border town of Balibo, he said.

Nymo said the mercy mission was launched with permission from the Indonesian government and military, which was accused of doing nothing to stop Wednesday's bloodshed.

Hours earlier, thousands of armed pro-Indonesian militia members and their supporters stormed the UNHCR office in Atambua. Witnesses said militiamen beat three foreign U.N. workers to death and burned their bodies in the street.

The three were the first civilian U.N. workers to be killed in Timor. Two peacekeeping soldiers have died in border skirmishes with armed militia infiltrators in East Timor in recent weeks.

The U.N. building was also set on fire by the mob angered by the unsolved death a day earlier of a prominent militia leader who was accused of committing atrocities in East Timor last year.

The nationalities of the murdered victims was not immediately known. Several foreign U.N. staff had escaped and one was badly injured, police said.

"The militiamen beat them to death inside the building. They then dragged the bodies outside, put on them a pile of wood, poured gasoline over them and set them on fire," said one witness, who was too frightened to give his name. "It was scary."

Wednesday's unprecedented violence is certain to harm the standing abroad of Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, who is in New York for this week's U.N. Millennium Summit.

Wahid has failed to rein in rogue elements of Indonesia's army blamed for fomenting violence in Timor and other trouble spots in an apparent attempt to derail his push for democratic reform.

Jake Morland, UNHCR spokesman in West Timor's capital Kupang, said 90 UNHCR staffers elsewhere in the province were on standby for possible evacuation in case the violence spread.

The U.N. agency has been delivering aid to an estimated 90,000 refugees who have lingered in border in camps after fleeing violence in East Timor 12 months ago.

It has repeatedly been forced to shut down operations after attacks by militia gangs on its staff and buildings over many months.

One witness, army Sgt. Joseph Carvalo, said Wednesday's riot erupted a day after the murder of a militiaman in the nearby town of Betun.

The official Antara news agency identified the victim as Mendosa Moruk, a former militia commander. He was among 19 men named last week by Indonesia's attorney general as suspects in last year's devastation of East Timor. The men have been summoned to testify next week.

The Indonesian military stood by during last year's rampage and the violence only ended with the arrival of international troops. The United Nations has accused sections of Indonesia's army of aiding the militias.

About 250,000 East Timorese fled East Timor for dozens of border refugee camps in West Timor a year ago to escape violence by Indonesian troops and their militia allies who opposed a U.N.-supervised vote for East Timor's independence.

The violence continued until international peacekeepers landed in East Timor on Sept. 20. Since then, nearly 170,000 refugees have returned from West Timor.

The remaining refugees, many of them former Indonesian soldiers or civil servants, continue to live in the unsanitary camps.

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