Thu, Oct 26, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Dili airport closed after gang clashes


East Timor's international airport was closed yesterday after a man was shot and killed during clashes between rival gangs near the facility, the aviation authority and hospital officials said.

The shooting was part of escalating violence in recent days in which four people have been killed and 47 wounded, said Antonio Caleres, director of East Timor's main hospital.

The Australian Defense Force said in a statement one of its soldiers, part of a foreign peacekeeping mission, had fired shots in self-defense yesterday morning at an armed man who approached one of its positions at the airport.

The man fled and his condition was unknown. It was unclear if the incidents were related.

The unrest began on Sunday following the release last week of a UN report into the violence that wracked the tiny nation earlier this year. A special commission largely blamed the government of former prime minister Mari Alkatiri for a wave of killings and arson in April and May that left 33 dead and forced 155,000 people into overcrowded displacement camps.

UN spokesman Adrian Edwards said UN police had mediated to halt battles between youths near one of dozens of displacement camps around the capital, Dili, and that the situation was "more or less under control."

He said he would not characterize the situation as an escalation and that the airport would hopefully reopen after a few hours.

The UN had "no information suggesting linkage with the report," Edwards said.

"If there is a link that will hopefully become clear in next few days," he added.

However, other officials said tensions had risen since the report's release.

Lino Mesquita, a village chief in the Comoro area at the center of recent clashes, said "the situation is very complicated now after the release of the UN report."

Foreign peacekeepers need to use "deadly force against trouble makers so that the fighting can be avoided," Mesquita told reporters at the airport.

Caleres, the hospital director, also linked the bloodshed to the report: "So far, four people died and 47 people were injured, 13 of them in critical condition, since the announcement of the UN report."

Assis Hendrique da Silva, 25, was shot in the head by unknown gunmen near the airport yesterday morning, said his father, Evaresto Hendrique de Silva, 54.

Another man was shot and killed on Tuesday night and seven were injured in clashes between rival gangs in the Comoro neighborhood, Caleres said.

"The airport has been totally closed due to security reasons," Romaldo da Silva, director of East Timor's Civil Aviation Authority, told reporters. "There was no security for my staff this morning and I therefore decided to close temporarily until we feel secure enough to reopen it."

Da Silva said fighting on the main road connecting downtown Dili and the airport had cut off all traffic and that he had been unable to reach his office.

International peacekeepers fired rubber bullets at groups of battling youths on Tuesday night and yesterday morning, a reporter at the scene said. They patrolled the city in Blackhawk helicopters as ambulances shuttled the wounded to the local hospital, the reporter said.

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