Thu, Aug 24, 2006 - Page 4 News List

Timorese refugees fear further attacks

GANG ACTIVITY An official at a camp for displaced people said more than 3,000 have left amid rumors that people from the east of the country are targets


At this makeshift camp, thousands of East Timor's displaced people fear for their safety as youths intermittently hurl rocks at their temporary homes and rumors swirl of more serious attacks.

"United we are, in peace and building our country!" reads a banner in the local Tetum language stretching above the gate to the high-walled Obrigado Barracks in the East Timorese capital. Those remaining at the camp -- a motley array of yellow, white and blue tents -- feel, however, that permanent peace is still a distant hope.

"We are often pelted with stones. Even this morning, stones were thrown here," said Dominggos Gomes, a 34-year-old father of six.

"I am constantly worried and on guard," he added.

Despite the presence of some 3,000 international peacekeepers deployed to East Timor in May, when violence rocked Dili and led to 21 deaths, sporadic bouts of low-level unrest have continued to plague the capital.

The original fighting between factions of East Timor's security forces -- triggered by the sacking of 600 deserting soldiers -- degenerated into communal violence on the streets.

Gangs played up previously unimportant differences between ordinary people from the east and west of the tiny nation.

This gang activity appears to have persisted, with few of the 150,000 people estimated to have fled to makeshift camps returning home.

Last weekend around 200 youths -- some wielding spears, knives, darts or slingshots -- torched six homes and assaulted an Australian police officer over the weekend. Twenty-five people were detained.

On Tuesday, two Australian police officers were slightly injured and three of their vehicles destroyed as they attempted to break up a battle between two groups of rock-throwing youths in an area near another camp. Australian police fired live rounds into the air after coming under attack and called in Portuguese police reinforcements who fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd, the LUSA news agency reported.

The UN expressed alarm over security at the temporary shelters last week, with a security advisor saying they appeared to have been singled out for attacks. At Obrigado Barracks, most people hail from the east.

Liberio dos Santos, a camp coordinator, said that just over 3,300 people have left the camp as rumors of attacks increased in recent weeks: "The main reason for their departure is that they heard that the Obrigado Barracks camp will be burned down and people from eastern East Timor eradicated."

Many of those who have left shifted to other camps not seen as being under threat, he said, rather than returning home.

Gomes said he believed dozens of local youths were behind the stone-throwing, adding that he and others here were now too afraid to leave the camp after dark.

"If I venture out of the gate, I could be the target of the stones or even killed by those outside," he said.

A small security post at the entrance gate is manned by four uniformed security guards provided by UN headquarters, armed only with walkie-talkies. Dos Santos said demands for better security have fallen on deaf ears.

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