Fri, Jun 23, 2006 - Page 1 News List

East Timorese president says he may resign

MUSICAL CHAIRS Having seemingly failed to persuade the prime minister to quit, President Xanana Gusmao said he may step down himself


East Timor's president threatened to resign yesterday after the ruling party defied his orders to oust the prime minister, deepening a political crisis in the tiny nation following weeks of bloody street battles.

"Tomorrow I will write a letter to parliament to inform them that I'm resigning as the president of the republic because I'm embarrassed about all the bad things the state has done to the people," President Xanana Gusmao said in a rambling 90-minute address to the nation.

Many East Timorese say Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri decision to fire 600 disgruntled soldiers in March was to blame for clashes and gang warfare in the capital that left at least 30 people dead and sent nearly 150,000 people fleeing from their homes.

The violence was the worst to hit the tiny Asian nation since it voted for independence from Indonesia seven years ago, though tensions have eased in recent weeks with the arrival of a 2,700-strong foreign peacekeeping force.

Gusmao wrote a letter to Alkatiri on Wednesday saying he no longer had the trust of the people and demanding he resign or be fired.

That sparked emergency talks between the prime minister and members of his Fretilin party, which control 55 of the 88 seats in the country's Parliament. They emerged hours later vowing to stand by their beleaguered leader.

"Fretilin reaffirms Dr Mari Alkatiri as prime minister," said party spokesman Jose Reis, adding that the prime minister had only recently been re-elected as head of the party and could not be forced from office.

Gusmao immediately accused Fretilin of creating instability and demanded that the party replace Alkatiri as its leader -- though it was not clear what authority he had to make such a demand.

"If the situation does not change by early tomorrow morning, I will send an official letter of resignation to parliament," he said in his address to the nation. "Fretilin's leaders want to kill democracy in East Timor."

Meanwhile, Australian Broadcasting Corp's Four Corners television news program reported on Monday that Alkatiri was present when then-Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato ordered an alleged hit squad linked to the Fretilin to eliminate rivals.

Lobato has since resigned and is under house arrest following a court order for allegedly trying to re-arm civilians. Alkatiri has denied the hit squad reports.

Attorney General Longuinhos Monteiro told reporters Lobato was a suspect in a treason case.

"We will see the development of Rogerio's hearing to see whether Alkatiri is part of this case or not," he said.

Lobato was deputy head of Fretilin and an ally of Alkatiri's.

He was escorted by Australian troops to a court yesterday where he was charged with "attempted revolution, conspiracy, providing state weapons to civilians, and association with criminals," Monteir said.

He faces 15 years imprisonment if convicted.

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