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Fighting, looting erupt in East Timor

/ Source: The Associated Press

Fighting and looting erupted in East Timor’s capital on Tuesday as its leaders held urgent meetings to find a way out of the worst crisis in the young nation’s seven-year history.

Australian peacekeepers struggled to keep order as thousands of desperate people crowded around a warehouse in Dili to receive free rice.

Tens of thousands of residents have fled their homes to escape the violence in the smoldering capital.

“We need more food. The situation is terrible,” said Daniel Afonso, who fled his destroyed home with his parents and four children and is staying at a church refugee center.

“It is dangerous to go out looking for food and the shops are closed,” he said.

Fighting broke as mobs roamed through several areas of the capital on Tuesday, and there was scattered arson and looting. Ambulances took injured people to a hospital, but it was not immediately clear how many had been hurt.

Tension grows
The situation appeared more tense than on Monday, when foreign peacekeepers made a show of force, throwing machete-wielding youths to the ground and handcuffing them as residents looked on.

The country’s political leaders met for a second day Tuesday in an attempt to defuse the crisis. Heavily armed Australian and East Timorese troops guarded the palace, where anti-government protesters called for the prime minister’s resignation and helicopters and armored personnel carriers patrolled nearby.

On Monday, revered President Xanana Gusmao, who wields enormous status as the hero of East Timor’s independence, told a crowd outside the palace to be patient and promised a solution would soon be found.

“Stop fighting ... calm down,” Gusmao told the crowd. “Don’t take up swords. Don’t burn houses. Stop dividing the nation.”

The crowd chanted “Viva Gusmao! Viva Gusmao!”

Many demonstrators want Gusmao to dissolve parliament and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri to step down. Alkatiri has been blamed for failing to stop the unrest, which was triggered by the March firing of 600 disgruntled soldiers from the 1,400-member army.

After staging deadly riots last month, the sacked troops fled the seaside capital, setting up positions in the surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla war if they were not reinstated.

One leader of the renegade forces, Maj. Agosto De Araujo, said the ousted troops had sent a message to Gusmao offering to join peace talks.

“We are ready to be called back to the negotiating table at any time,” De Araujo told The Associated Press by telephone.

Arson continued Monday, though there was less chaos than over the weekend, when gangs armed with machetes, clubs and spears rampaged through the city. Provoking much of the violence are accusations, often unfounded, that one person or another harbors sympathy for Indonesia, which pulled out of East Timor in 1999 after 24 years of often brutal rule.

In an interview with Australian radio on Tuesday, an Australian military commander insisted that country’s peacekeepers are gaining the upper hand against street thugs in Dili.

“The evidence of the effectiveness of the task force is seen on the streets; yesterday was a real turning point,” Brig. Michael Slater told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

‘Gutless thugs’
Slater said his soldiers, who began arriving Dili last Thursday, had confiscated more than 450 high-powered rifles, handguns, shotguns and grenades in 48 hours from gangs of “gutless thugs” who have looted and burned homes in the capital.

As spectators looked on, Australian forces briefly detained youths caught lighting fires. The foreigners lack arrest powers and the suspects were soon freed.

Businesses and schools remained closed in Dili amid mounting shortages of fuel, food and water. Long lines formed at a few open gas stations.

Portugal, East Timor’s former ruler for four centuries, said it will deploy 120 paramilitary police by the end of the week, three weeks ahead of schedule.

Non-governmental organizations said many areas were simply too dangerous to receive deliveries of aid.

“If the security situation does not improve, it is possible that the humanitarian crisis could worsen significantly,” Luis Vieira, a spokesman for a group of aid agencies, said in a statement.

There is a serious threat of disease outbreaks, he said.

International troops began arriving last week to help put down the most serious threat to the nation of around 1 million.

The United Nations administered the territory for 2½ years, before formal independence was declared in 2002. The U.N. peacekeeping force wrapped up operations this year.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said the 1,300 Australian soldiers in Timor face serious dangers.

“You’re dealing with a whole lot of disparate, uncontrolled gangs,” Howard told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “The fundamental problem in East Timor is that the country has not been well governed.”