Street battles rage in East Timor despite arrival of foreign security forces

Thursday, June 1, 2006

DILI, East Timor -- Machete-wielding youths battled in East Timor's capital Wednesday amid burning and looting as more foreign troops bolstered a force struggling to stop the unrest that has destabilized the country.

More than 100,000 residents of Dili have fled their homes to escape the violence, an aid official said.

Australia, which has provided the vast bulk of the more than 2,000 international security forces trying to control the city, suggested that a semipermanent contingent may be needed to help East Timor restore order.

After a lull in violence Tuesday, street fights broke out in several parts of the smoldering city Wednesday. Roaming bands of youths fired sling shots, threw rocks and hacked rivals with machetes.

Australian forces spent several tense hours on the main airport road trying unsuccessfully to keep the warring parties apart. Some patrols rolled past scenes of violence and arson without intervening.

Australian army medics treated a man who suffered head and back wounds after being attacked with a machete. At least eight people were hospitalized with machete wounds, and three of them were in critical condition, a hospital official said.

More than 100,000 people have fled their homes, said Kym Smithies, a spokeswoman for about 30 private aid groups operating in the country. More than 70,000 were in camps in the capital and another 30,000 had fled the city altogether, she said.

The violence is the worst in East Timor since its bloody break from Indonesia in 1999, which paved the way for full independence in 2002 after years of U.N. administration.

It remains one of the world's poorest countries and is dependent on foreign aid.

The fighting was triggered by the dismissal in March of 600 soldiers from the 1,400-member army. Sporadic clashes last week between the disgruntled soldiers and government troops spiraled into open street violence in Dili, and at least 27 people have died.

Much of the antagonism on the streets is between East Timorese from the "east" -- perceived to be pro-independence -- and those from the "west," believed to be sympathetic to Indonesia.

Australia has 1,300 front-line troops in East Timor and several hundred military personnel supporting them.

New Zealand's contingent of almost 200 troops began arriving in force Wednesday, deploying from military cargo planes carrying packs and rifles.

More than 330 Malaysian troops are in place, and some 120 Portuguese paramilitaries are due by week's end.

President Xanana Gusmao said late Tuesday he had invoked emergency powers and taken over the government's security role to try to end a political deadlock that has contributed to the rampant lawlessness.

Foreign troops appeared to be flexing newly given powers to detain suspects, not just disarm them, and parts of the city appeared calm Wednesday.

Australian troops arrested 10 suspects in one burnt-out neighborhood. Within eyesight of the troops, houses were broken into and set ablaze.

Defense Minister Brendan Nelson suggested that an international security force might be needed to help ensure "the political, financial, legal and social reconstruction of East Timor over the near and longer term." He said Australia could lead such a force.

In Canberra, Australia's military chief, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, said he expected the peacekeeping mission to last at least six months.

East Timor's Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri -- whom many blame for the crisis -- rejected calls for his resignation.

"I will be prime minister until the next election," he told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

On Wednesday, 15 major aid donors -- including Australia, the United States, the EU, the Asian Development Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank -- urged the feuding parties to stop.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he hoped residents would heed Gusmao's appeal to turn in weapons to the peacekeepers.

"It's really sad and tragic that we have to relive this situation again in East Timor," he said.

Pope Benedict XVI also appealed for an end to the violence in the country, which is predominantly Roman Catholic.

Rebel leader Maj. Alfredo Reinado said the crisis would not end until Alkatiri -- whom the rebels accuse of discrimination -- is ousted.

"The prime minister should go," Reinado told The Associated Press by telephone from a rebel redoubt in the hills surrounding Dili. "Why doesn't he just leave? Do more people need to be killed?"

Associated Press reporter Christopher Torchia contributed to this report.

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