An East Timor rebel leader said yesterday that he was open to talks on ending the troubled country's wave of violence, but made clear that any solution should not include a role for the embattled prime minister.
"We are trying to set up a good mechanism to conduct a dialogue in the near future," said Alfredo Reinado, a former military police commander who met on Tuesday with Defense Minister Jose Ramos-Horta.
"For my part, I'm ready any time to sit at the table to find out who is wrong and correct the problem," he said.
Some 600 striking soldiers in East Timor were dismissed in March, triggering clashes with loyalist forces that gave way to gang warfare late last month in the capital, Dili. The rebels fled to the hills and are demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.
"Through dialogue we can get real justice, especially for the dismissed soldiers," Reinado said by telephone.
He said he hoped dialogue could help rebuild East Timor "as a proud nation before the international community, without Mari Alkatiri."
Weeks of unrest have left at least 30 people dead. While the violence appeared to be easing a day after the president tearfully appealed for people to stop burning their capital, several homes were set on fire at an Indonesian police barracks converted into private housing.
Tens of thousands of fearful residents have fled their homes and are living in makeshift camps and shelters in and around the city. UN agencies have delivered emergency airlifts of food and other supplies.
A joint statement from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and its East Timor affiliate said they have responded to 40 requests concerning missing relatives.
"Having to cope with the violence and the loss of one's home is hard enough," said Ida Bucher, head of the ICRC mission in Dili. "But not knowing what has become of a loved one is even worse."
Under criticism that peacekeepers weren't doing enough to restore order, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he wants foreign police to be authorized to arrest arsonists and looters in the streets. He also wants Australian police numbers there to double to about 200 "as soon as possible."
"It's not to say though that just by getting more police on the ground in East Timor, that is automatically going to solve the problem," Downer said in Adelaide. "In order for day-to-day police work to be conducted by foreign police, there will almost certainly have to be a change in the law of East Timor."
Yesterday afternoon, more than a dozen Australian armored vehicles rolled through the city, and soldiers, some with crowbars and sledgehammers, conducted searches of abandoned buildings.
Australian troops earlier detained about 15 men who were trying to break into a motorcycle store on the road into the capital from the airport.
The men were led away in plastic handcuffs in what one soldier called a show of force aimed at discouraging lawlessness.
Downer and New Zealand Defense Minister Phil Goff expressed concerns that politicians could be exploiting the unrest, though both said there was no clear evidence.