Fierce gunbattles raged in East Timor’s capital yesterday, killing at least three people and wounding more than a dozen, as international troop started arriving in the tiny nation to help it quell a rebellion by disgruntled ex-soldiers.
Dozens of foreigners fled the country by plane as the violence between soldiers loyal to the government and recently dismissed troops continued for a third day in the capital, Dili.
“It’s tragic that the East Timorese are fighting each other like this,” Australian Malcolm Cooler, 40, said as he waited with his wife at the Dili airport. “I’m shocked and sad.”
Firefights erupted in several areas around the capital — including near President Xanana Gusmao’s office and the UN compound, where scores of East Timorese have sought shelter. Homes and business were torched, with plumes of smoke rising over virtually deserted streets.
East Timor, the world’s youngest nation, has been plagued by unrest since March when more than 40 percent of its armed forces were fired after going on strike to protest alleged discrimination in the military.
Some hard-liners fled the capital last month after participating in deadly riots, hunkering down in surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla warfare if they were not reinstated.
Violence in the capital —which has killed five people this week — prompted the fledgling nation’s government to ask for international troops.
Australia, which led a UN-military force into East Timor after its bloody break for independence from Indonesia, has offered to send up to 1,300 forces, ships, helicopters and armored personnel carriers.
The first 100 arrived yesterday in an Australian military plane, welcomed by hundreds of cheering East Timorese seeking refuge at the airport, some clapping, crying and shouting “Thank God!”
“Welcome Aussie soldiers, please help us once again,” said Judit Isaac, a 47-year-old housewife as the troops in full combat gear fanned out across the airport, taking up positions in the grass in the center of the runway.
New Zealand said it was sending 60 police and soldiers yesterday.
Portugal — which colonized East Timor for four centuries, until 1975 — also agreed to send troops as did Malaysia.
The commander of the renegade forces — whom East Timor’s top military chief said he wants captured dead or alive — said meanwhile that bringing in peacekeepers was the only way to prevent civil war.
“This is the only solution,” Major Alfredo Reinado, commander of the 600-strong breakaway force, said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. “There is no other way, or it will be war forever. The government has taken too long. It is not capable of resolving this.”
Preparing for the worst, dozens of foreigners fled the country, including 40 Australian embassy staff and their families. The US embassy has also ordered the evacuation of all nonessential personal and advised US citizens to leave.
“I feel horrible, like a rat deserting a sinking ship,” said Australian Margaret Hall, who arrived in the country several months ago with an organization that is helping provide maternal and child health care.