updated 5/5/2006 1:41:41 PM ET 2006-05-05T17:41:41

Thousands of people fled East Timor’s capital Friday as rumors circulated via mobile phone text messages that disgruntled ex-soldiers who clashed with police last week were preparing an attack, officials and witnesses said.

Residents started leaving for villages outside the city a week after fighting in the city between hundreds of former soldiers and police left five people dead and dozens injured.

The violence prompted foreign missions to advise nonessential staff to leave the capital, and raised fears the government in the fledgling country had lost control.

Political leaders tried to quash the rumors, saying the situation was calm and appealing to frightened inhabitants to return.

The military fired nearly 600 soldiers in March after they went on strike to protest working conditions. They have threatened to keep up their attacks if the government fails to resolve the conflict.

Last week, soldiers went on a rampage in Dili, setting fire to cars and shops. Five people were killed and dozens injured. A number of countries recalled embassy staff and alerted their citizens here to the violence.

On Friday, phone text messages said the ex-soldiers, supported by some police and military elements, were planning to attack Dili and the army headquarters. The origin of the messages could not be ascertained.

By late afternoon, there was no sign of trouble, and officials urged people to return to the city of 50,000 residents.

U.N. political officer Scott Cunliffe dismissed the rumors as false.

“As I see it, it’s all calm at the moment in Dili,” he said by telephone. The concerns are based on “unfounded rumors of attacks or clashes that they suspect might take place. ... It’s playing on people’s fears.”

Government employees who fled would face disciplinary measures if they didn’t return to work on Monday, officials said.

The government raised the official death toll from earlier violence to five and said 45 homes had been burned down and 116 partially destroyed.

In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard, speaking before the rumors took off in Dili, said he would consider sending troops to help calm tensions in East Timor — if the government asked for help.

Washington on Thursday authorized the departure of all nonemergency workers and their families, and urged American citizens to postpone travel to East Timor.

In August 1999, East Timor’s people voted for independence after 24 years of Indonesian rule during which rights groups estimate 100,000-250,000 people were killed.

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