Six people were missing after a mob attacked a district office of East Timor's ruling party in an area where rebel soldiers are based, witnesses said yesterday.
It was the first reported violence outside Dili since fighting broke out last month in the capital, and raised concerns after hopes had risen that divisive factions were willing to sit down and resolve their differences.
"We will not sit back here and let the violence spread beyond Dili," said Brigadier Mick Slater, head of an Australian-led peacekeeping force.
But he acknowledged that the international contingent was tailored for operations in Dili, where "the sporadic and occasional outbreaks of violence around town are becoming fewer and fewer."
The attack occurred in Gleno, a district capital 30km southwest of Dili. Local neighborhood chief Francisco Salsinha said a group of about 10 policemen and military deserters with rifles and handguns arrived in two vehicles and attacked the district office of the Fretilin party late on Wednesday.
Residents heard four gunshots, then saw 10 Fretilin members flee the building, he said. The attackers chased the party members as they ran toward nearby mountains, and seven more shots rang out. Six of those who tried to escape had not been accounted for as of yesterday afternoon.
The office showed signs that those inside had left in a hurry -- bullet casings lay scattered about, while chairs and other items were knocked over and coffee was strewn over the floor.
Many East Timorese blame the government for recent violence and are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the dissolution of parliament.
Lieutenant Gastao Salsinha, a rebel soldier based in Ermera, said his forces were not involved in the attack on the office. The rebels are among 600 soldiers whose dismissal in March triggered clashes with government forces that subsequently gave way to gang warfare.
East Timor seems to have staggered backward to its violent birth in 1999, with the government in shambles and Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta saying a UN-led police force will be deployed for at least two years to help restore stability.
Ramos-Horta said on Wednesday that the UN was expected to debate the force's composition next week. It could be dispatched within three months and would include rapid reaction elements to quell lawlessness and violence.
Any new deployment will have to be approved by the Security Council, but UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan understands that the gradual reduction of the UN mission in East Timor over the last four years will have to be reversed, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Wednesday in New York.
"The council will have to make some decision as to what the UN posture in East Timor will look like in the months ahead, but it is pretty clear already from here that that will have to be increased," Dujarric said.
At least 30 people have been killed in the last month, despite the presence of 2,000 foreign troops, and Ramos-Horta said the death toll may be higher.
More than 40 people have been reported missing from East Timor's capital, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.
More than 100,000 people fled their homes to makeshift shelters and camps in Dili as machete-wielding gangs have torched and looted entire neighborhoods. It is the worst wave of unrest since East Timor's bloody break for independence from Indonesian rule seven years ago, when retaliatory militia groups devastated much of the territory.