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East Timor houses set afire as unrest continues

East Timor mobs burned more than 20 houses overnight in the capital after its embattled prime minister resigned showing not all citizens have been placated.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Mobs burned more than 20 houses overnight in East Timor's capital after the outgoing prime minister publicly scolded his critics, showing that while the country's political crisis is easing, some citizens have yet to be placated.

Mari Alkatiri, who resigned from the prime minister's post this week under intense political and public pressure, told about 2,000 of his supporters in a nearby city Tuesday that they should be stronger and better than his detractors, whom he accused of looting and burning homes during a violent uprising in the capital in late May.

"They destroyed Dili town, burned, looted and killed our people, and then they accuse me of being a terrorist, communist and a killer," he said.

He urged supporters of his Fretilin party to converge peacefully on the capital, Dili, in coming days to show that the party is dignified.

His speech was broadcast on national TV's evening news Tuesday, and angry crowds of youths took to the streets soon afterward. They burned homes that were mostly vacant, their residents having fled a month ago to refugee camps.

Sirens scream, helicopters patrol skies
Sirens blared overnight as Portuguese police raced to the area to control the rampage. Helicopters were heard patrolling the skies all night.

Many East Timorese say Alkatiri's dismissal of 600 disgruntled soldiers in March was to blame for street battles and gang warfare that left at least 30 people dead in the worst violence to hit the tiny nation since its vote for independence from Indonesia seven years ago.

Homes were torched and machete-wielding youths went door-to-door to carry out personal vendettas, sending nearly 150,000 people fleeing their homes, before a 2,700-strong foreign peacekeeping mission arrived to restore order.

The dismissed soldiers were mostly from the western part of the country, and they complained of discrimination and poor conditions compared to their eastern counterparts. The ensuing turmoil has been characterized as an east-versus-west feud.

Some witnesses of the arson attacks late Tuesday said the perpetrators were western Timorese and that some of the youths drove past refugee camps housing easterners and shouted: "Get out of Dili!"

Resignation hoped to end violence
Alkatiri's resignation on Monday was seen as key to easing months of political tensions and unrest in Asia's newest nation.

On Tuesday, President Xanana Gusmao announced plans to form a caretaker government but did not say who would replace Alkatiri.

Many believe that Jose Ramos-Horta, the country's Nobel prize-winning foreign minister, will be nominated for the office.

Gusmao also said emergency powers would be extended to security forces for one month to prevent large gatherings, search suspicious persons and confiscate weapons.

Alkatiri has been summoned for questioning by the prosecutor-general this week on allegations that he hired hit squads to silence his political opponents.

He denies the accusations, but one of his close allies, former Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato, is facing charges of allegedly arming civilian militias at the request of the outgoing premier.

Lobato reportedly implicated Alkatiri in the case.