Foreign troops struggled yesterday to stave off civil war in East Timor after soldiers gunned down unarmed police in the capital and a mob torched houses, killing women and children, bringing the death toll in four days of violence to 20.
Members of the tiny country's 800-member army attacked the national police headquarters on Thursday, accusing police of allying themselves with a large band of dismissed soldiers who have engaged in street battles with the military in Dili.
After an hour, UN police and military advisers negotiated a ceasefire under which the police were to surrender their weapons and leave the building.
However, as the unarmed police were being escorted out, "army soldiers opened fire on them, killing nine and wounding 27 others, including two UN police advisers," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.
The unrest in East Timor is the most serious threat to the desperately poor country since it won independence from Indonesia in 1999, and the attack on policemen illustrates the dangers facing peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia, the first of whom arrived on Thursday and yesterday.
The UN, which spent millions of dollars training East Timor's army and setting up the country, urged East Timor to take "all necessary steps" to end the violence, which has been fueled by simmering tensions in a nation divided along east-west lines.
The sound of heavy machine-gun fire, mortar and small arms was heard from hills overlooking Dili yesterday and machete-wielding youths were seen stopping a bus on the city's outskirts and asking its passengers where they were from, before eventually letting them go.
Residents described how, in one of the most grisly attacks, a mob came to their neighborhood on Thursday, smashing windows and pouring gasoline on houses, one of which was said to belong to Home Security Minister Rogerio Lobato, though he was not inside at the time.
An Associated Press Television News cameraman saw six charred bodies -- some of them women and children -- scattered across the living room, bedroom and bathroom of the house yesterday.
"I ran away when I saw them coming," Victor Do Dantos, a 20-year-old neighbor, said of the mob, declining to speculate who they were.
Earlier in the week five people were killed in gun battles, most of them government forces.
Streets all over the city were largely deserted, with thousands of terrified residents fleeing to the waterfront, or seeking shelter in schools, community centers and the main UN compound.
The violence follows the government's decision in March to fire 600 soldiers after they staged a monthlong strike to protest poor pay and alleged discrimination.
The dismissed soldiers are largely from the country's west, while the military's leadership originates from the east.