East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao is expected to name an interim prime minister today, the ruling party said, in a move that could finally end weeks of uncertainty in the impoverished nation.
The post became vacant last month when Mari Alkatiri was forced to resign after being blamed for failing to rein in violence that erupted in May, leaving at least 21 people dead and forcing 150,000 to leave their homes.
Party president Fransisco Guterres said after talks with Gusmao that the president would meet again with ruling Fretilin party leaders this afternoon before announcing his choice.
"The president didn't give any indication of who he will choose, but said the results will be announced tomorrow [Saturday]," Guterres told reporters yesterday.
Naming a new prime minister acceptable both to the ruling party and Gusmao, who has been highly critical of its leaders, is crucial for the half-island nation to begin forging a peaceful future.
Minister for State Ana Pessoa and Agriculture Minister Estanislau da Silva were among those who met with the president. Both ministers are believed to be on the shortlist of potential candidates.
Political independent Jose Ramos-Horta, who resigned as foreign minister amid the turmoil, is also seen as a candidate. He helped found Fretilin, which controls a comfortable majority of 55 of the 88 seats in parliament.
He was also the international face of East Timor's 24-year independence struggle against Indonesia and won the Nobel peace prize in 1996 for his efforts.
Fretilin members refused to comment on which names were on their list of preferred candidates.
Presidential spokeswoman Lusitania Lopes told reporters that Ramos-Horta appeared to be the favoured candidate among ordinary East Timorese.
"Everybody is confident that Ramos-Horta is a strong candidate, although we're still not sure what was discussed in the meeting with Fretilin," she said, adding that it was not clear at this time who Gusmao favours.
"Ana Pessoa has been doing a good job. She is [also] a strong candidate," said Lopes.
She was unaware which names were on the final list but said Health Minister Rui Maria Araujo was also likely to be there along with the other three.
Reformist Fretilin members -- who have been critical of Alkatiri but remain in a minority -- meanwhile said the current leadership should not be allowed to nominate anyone as they had been illegally elected during the party's annual congress in May.
They say the party leaders should have been elected by secret ballot rather than by a show of hands.
"Fretilin reformists are waiting for an extraordinary congress, as was mentioned by the president, so we can choose new leaders, who can then propose a prime minister," party member Ejidio de Jesus told reporters.
Gusmao said last month before Alkatiri's step-down that such a congress should be held but has not mentioned it directly again since then.
A Chinese restaurant meanwhile was torched in the Comoro area of Dili early yesterday despite the presence of more than 2,200 foreign peacekeepers now patrolling the capital.
Otherwise Dili remained calm, with shops open, public buses running and streets busy.
The new interim prime minister is expected to lead until fresh elections due early next year.
Meanwhile, Alkatiri was summoned yesterday by the nation's chief prosecutor to answer allegations of involvement in the illegal distribution of weapons to civilian militias.