Mobs armed with swords and axes rampaged yesterday through the capital of East Timor as another day of violence pushed one of the world's newest and poorest nations deeper into chaos.
The tiny country's prime minister said the unrest was part of an attempted coup to overthrow him and hinted that rival President Xanana Gusmao was to blame, adding to the uncertainty that has raised fears of civil war.
Houses were set ablaze and terrified residents raced for the airport and foreign embassies in Dili, dragging their children and whatever possessions they could carry.
Australian troops, called in on Thursday to cope with the crisis, expressed confidence they had enough troops to handle the situation. But witnesses said new fighting kept breaking out as soon as their armed patrols moved on.
"It's east against west, soldiers against soldiers, police against soldiers, everyone against everyone," said Father Lalo, a Catholic priest who was on the streets urging people to put down their weapons. "It's total madness."
The troubles began last month when nearly half of East Timor's 1,400 soldiers were sacked after they went on strike to protest what they said was discrimination in the army against those from the east of the country.
The disgruntled soldiers fought sporadic clashes with the military during the past week, but yesterday's violence appeared to have spread to clashes between rival gangs from the east and west.
The fighters used whatever weapons they had -- some with automatic rifles, others with machetes, daggers and spiked clubs, still others using rocks or bows and arrows.
It was not immediately clear if anyone had been killed, although the UN said it was evacuating non-essential personnel.
Violence during the week left at least 15 people dead, including several policemen who were gunned down by Timorese troops.
Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said the violence was politically motivated and part of a plot to unseat him although he declined to name President Gusmao -- the popular former guerrilla leader who helped win independence from Indonesia.
"What is in motion is an attempt to stage a coup d'etat," Alkatriri said. "However, I am confident that the president of the republic, with whom I am keeping permanent contacts, will not cease to respect the Constitution."
Alkatiri said Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta was talking with the rebel groups whose grievances sparked the violence, but gave no indication of how the negotiations were progressing.
In a sign of the dangerous state of Dili's streets, Alkatiri's press conference was delayed for around an hour after a mob marched on the hotel where he was to speak.
After initially ignoring the order, the mob stopped when Australian troops yelled "hands up." With their weapons raised, the soldiers disarmed the men, collecting a pile of clubs, knives and slingshots.