DILI, East Timor — Gangs burned half a dozen buildings near the airport in East Timor’s capital Sunday as residents pleaded for a permanent police presence in their neighborhoods to stop the violence.
Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson urged Asian and Pacific countries not to allow East Timor to become a failed state, warning it could turn into a haven for terrorists and criminals.
“It’s in all of our interests to see that we do not have failed states in our region,” Nelson said at a regional security conference in Singapore. “We cannot afford to have Timor-Leste (East Timor) become one of those, and in doing so become a haven, perhaps, for transnational crime, for terrorism, and indeed humanitarian disasters and injustice.”
Gang violence, looting and arson has killed at least 30 people and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes, many of them sheltering in squalid camps in Dili. The mayhem started with the dismissal of 600 soldiers in March, which led to clashes between disgruntled and loyalist troops and a breakdown in security.
Violence — the worst since East Timor’s break from Indonesia in 1999 — has dwindled since the arrival of 2,000 Australian, New Zealand and Malaysian troops more than a week ago. But the latest attacks exposed the limits on what the foreign peacekeepers can do.
Malaysian soldiers kicked down doors near a bridge in the search for suspects who tried to set fire to a building. Minutes after the troops left, a gang set fire to an adjacent row of houses. Fire spread to power lines and a tree, and armored personnel carriers rumbled back.
Men smashed the door and windows of a house with rocks and clubs as an Australian military vehicle stopped a few meters away, a soldier perched in the turret. No arrests were made.
Desperate for police
Peacekeepers have confiscated hundreds of weapons, and have temporarily arrested gang members. But they have refrained from firing their weapons and have often driven past scenes of looting or vandalism. While the restraint might avoid inflaming anger on the streets, it is a source of frustration for East Timorese desperate for an effective police force.
“If they come, it’s OK,” resident Zeca Godinho said of the peacekeepers as a building burned nearby. “But then they leave, and it starts again.”
Godinho, who owns eight trucks and runs a transport business that is now stalled by the unrest, said his family was living with other displaced people on the grounds of the airport. But he planned to stay at home to protect it against arsonists.
East Timor’s police force is in disarray, confined to barracks because it was one of the factions involved in fighting. There is no immediate way to process defendants because the court system is not operating, and a mob sacked the attorney-general’s office last week.
More foreign troops coming
In addition to the foreign troops, some Australian and Portuguese police are already in East Timor and more are on the way.
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said 35 Australian police, 250 from Malaysia, 120 from Portugal and some from New Zealand would soon arrive. He has said the police should be overseen by the United Nations, which led a nation-building program in East Timor until it declared independence in 2002.
“There’ll be quite a strong police presence,” Downer told Australia’s Seven Network on Sunday.
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