Thu, May 25, 2006 - Page 5 News List

International peacekeepers head for restive East Timor

DISTRESS SIGNAL Renewed gunbattles broke out between rebels and government forces, prompting the government to call on several other countries for help


International peacekeepers headed to East Timor yesterday to help restore order after gunbattles between disgruntled ex-soldiers and the military killed two people and wounded nine. Some foreign embassies started evacuating nonessential personnel.

"We can't control the situation," Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta said, adding that troops from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal had been asked to help "disarm renegade troops and police rebelling against the state."

Some were already boarding flights to the capital, Dili, while others said they could arrive within 48 hours.

East Timor has been plagued by unrest since nearly 600 soldiers -- a third of the country's armed forces -- were fired in March after going on strike to protest alleged discrimination in the military.

The trouble has escalated into the worst violence since 1999, when East Timor's 800,000 people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a UN-organized referendum. Indonesian troops and their proxy militias went on a rampage, killing more than 1,500 people before an Australian-led multinational force stepped in.

Some hardliners among the dismissed soldiers fled the capital last month after participating in deadly riots, bunkering down in surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla warfare if they were not reinstated.

On Tuesday, they ambushed troops on Dili's outskirts, sparking gunfights that left at least two people dead and eight wounded.

Clashes flared anew yesterday in the west of the capital, spreading later to the south, near the home of military chief Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak.

One marine officer was rushed to the main hospital in Dili after being shot in the neck, said Antonio Caleres, the hospital director, describing his condition as serious.

The spiraling violence prompted the US and Australia to order the evacuation of nonessential personnel.

Ramos Horta said he hoped foreign peacekeepers -- possibly with a UN Security Council mandate -- would help restore order to his fledgling nation.

Australia offered up to 1,300 troops, along with three ships, helicopters, armored personnel carriers and heavy airlift capabilities, and said they could arrive by this afternoon.

Portugal -- which colonized East Timor for four centuries until 1975 -- also agreed to send troops, and 60 police and military forces from New Zealand were already boarding flights to Dili.

Malaysia said its Cabinet still needed to discuss a possible deployment of forces.

Earlier yesterday, President Xanana Gusmao said he would "hunt down" those responsible for the latest bloodshed, including alleged ringleader Major Alfredo Reinado, as police and military fanned out in the city's outskirts.

"We have to stop them, so the people of East Timor are not living in fear and panic," Gusmao said.

At the heart of the conflict are the former soldiers' claims they were being discriminated against because they came from the west of the country, while military leaders originate from the east.

A government commission was established this month to investigate the ex-soldiers' allegations of discrimination, but has yet to release results.

East Timor, the world's newest nation, voted for independence in 1999 after 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation that human rights groups say left as many as 200,000 dead.

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