East Timor’s Nobel prize-winning foreign minister resigned in protest Sunday after the country’s ruling party ignored demands to fire the prime minister over accusations he provoked bloody unrest.
Jose Ramos-Horta’s departure threatened to unravel the government as it struggled to regain control following the worst outbreak of violence since the tiny nation voted for independence from Indonesia seven years ago.
Thousands of protesters kept vigil outside the government headquarters demanding Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri step down or be removed.
Many East Timorese say Alkatiri’s decision to dismiss 600 disgruntled soldiers in March was to blame for street battles and gang warfare that left at least 30 people dead and sent nearly 150,000 others fleeing from their homes. He also faces allegations of forming a hit squad to silence opponents, a charge he denies.
President Xanana Gusmao, who is revered for leading East Timor’s resistance to Indonesia’s 24-year occupation, said last week that he would resign unless Alkatiri left office. In response, thousands of protesters poured into the streets to demand Alkatiri’s ouster.
But the ruling Fretilin party said after talks Sunday that Alkatiri had accepted a party committee’s appeal to stay on. Party members said that while they did not want to escalate the crisis, removing a prime minister was not the answer.
“When (former President) Clinton was accused, did he resign?” asked Agriculture Minister Estanislau da Silva.
Gusmao’s longtime ally Ramos-Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996 for his nonviolent resistance to Indonesian rule, responded by saying he would resign “until a new government is established.”
He begged Alkatiri to follow suit, saying otherwise “the situation could become worse.”
“I do respect Mari Alkatiri ... and we were friends for many years. But in this case, I ask my old friend to resign,” Ramos-Horta told East Timor Radio and Television.
Transport Minister Ovideo Amaral also resigned, lashing out at the ruling party for ignoring what he said was the people’s will.
Violence has eased with the arrival of a 2,700-member Australian-led peacekeeping force, but Australian Prime Minister John Howard suggested Sunday that they would not stay indefinitely.
‘A more stable situation’
“We have great goodwill toward your country and we are willing to help,” Howard said in the Indonesian city of Batam. “But the political leaders of East Timor have got to accept responsibility for providing a more stable situation,” he added, refusing to give a time frame for bringing troops home.
About 5,000 protesters, meanwhile, rallied outside the government headquarters before dusk in the sixth day of large protests against Alkatiri. The mood was festive, but it appeared most did not know of the party’s decision to keep Alkatiri in power.
Young men in black T-shirts circled a wooden coffin that bore a photo of Alkatiri and a sign reading, “Vampire Man.”
“We want a new prime minister — a clean one, a wise one, respected by the people, not an arrogant man,” said 27-year-old demonstrator Eugenio Gusmao.
Though Alkatiri said he knew nothing about the alleged hit squads, a close ally, the former interior minister, is facing charges for allegedly arming civilian militias at his request.