Hundreds of UN employees were evacuated from East Timor as rival gangs roamed the streets of the capital, torching homes and battling with machetes in defiance of foreign peacekeepers sent to quell violence that has plunged the fledgling country into chaos.
Thousands of residents also fled Dili, seeking refuge in churches, embassies and at the airport, leaving much of the city deserted.
Smoke billowed from several areas where attacks were taking place yesterday. Australian troops rumbled toward the sound of gunfire in tanks and armored personnel carriers, but seemed to only briefly scatter combatants.
The head of Australia's operation, Brigadier Mick Slater, promised that once the full force arrived the foreign troops would take on the gangs.
"We will be disarming everybody in Dili," Slater said. "The only people in Dili carrying weapons will be the international forces. We have enough soldiers now to do what he have to do. If we need more, we will get them."
Australian Prime Minister John Howard told the Australian Broadcasting Commission: "It's a trickier operation than some people think."
"Nobody should assume that it's just a simple walk-in-the-park military operation -- it's quite challenging,'' he said.
Howard was openly critical of the Timorese leadership after announcing his decision to provide troops last week, and yesterday rejected objections to his remarks.
"The country has not been governed well over the past few years, that's obvious," Howard said. "I said that on Friday and I don't retreat from that."
The weeklong violence has killed at least 27 people, probably more, raising concerns that one of the world's youngest nations is plunging into a civil war, seven years after its traumatic break for independence from Indonesia.
The unrest was triggered by the March firing of 600 disgruntled soldiers -- nearly half the 1,400-member army -- and is the most serious crisis East Timor has faced.
The disgruntled soldiers fought sporadic battles with the military during the past week, but the violence has quickly spread to clashes between rival gangs from the east and west.
The uncertainty of the situation deepened on Saturday when Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri hinted that President Xanana Gusmao was using the violence to try to push him out of office in a coup.
"The whole system has collapsed completely," Martin Breen, a lawyer based in Dili, told reporters. "I have been here six years and cannot believe how fast this has developed into this mess."
Reports of a schism between Alkatiri and Gusmao have heightened fears of a general collapse in the country and Portugal, the former colonial power, warned about a possible civil war.
Foreign Minister Diogo Freitas said there seemed to be "discord between the president of the republic and the prime minister."
"We must not add a political and institutional crisis to the crisis of public order," he said. "If we put the two problems together, we have practically all the conditions for a civil war."
Four people were killed yesterday, one of them burned to death while he was trying to defend his home and the others shot, witnesses and hospital officials said.
A group was seen severely beating a man they accused of hiding guns. His life was spared after foreign reporters intervened and he was rushed bleeding to the hospital by aid workers.