Tue, Jul 24, 2007 - Page 5 News List

ISF peacekeepers patrol East Timorese capital


International security forces patrolled East Timor's capital yesterday, a day after using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse gangs of youths setting houses and tires on fire.

A blaze at the main compound of Australian-led troops also was being investigated, but Lieutenant Colonel Robert Barnes, a spokesman for the International Stabilization Force (ISF), said it was too early to speculate on the cause.

The violence that swept Dili late on Sunday came days after the country's ruling elite failed to decide who should lead a new coalition government.

They remain bitterly divided a year after factional fighting between police and army units spilled onto the streets, killing 37 people and driving 155,000 others from their homes.

Order was largely restored with the arrival of international troops, but isolated incidents continue and -- with inconclusive parliamentary elections last month -- the future of the nation remains uncertain.

At least one house was burned to the ground on Sunday and flames poured from the rooftops of several others. Gangs of boys also set tires on fire in the streets, said UN police spokeswoman Monica Rodrigues.

"Police dispersed them by firing tear gas and rubber bullets," she said.

An outdoor shed near the Australian troops' heliport also was destroyed in a fire, Barnes said, and ISF troops were investigating the blaze.

Australian and New Zealand troops patrolled the streets of downtown Dili yesterday, as a surveillance helicopter took to the skies. The city was largely calm, however, with residents sweeping away debris.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, faces major security, humanitarian and economic challenges just five years after it became Asia's newest state in a UN-backed independence vote.

Unemployment hovers at around 50 percent, and aid agencies have warned that a fifth of the population is threatened by food shortages after crop failures.

Rival political forces have until July 30 to decide who should lead a new coalition government, but talks headed by President Jose Ramos-Horta last Thursday yielded no results.

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