Militias set homes ablaze

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DILI, East Timor (AP) – Women and children ran screaming from their homes as renegade militias burned dozens of homes in East Timor’s capital Saturday, even as foreign troops worked to stem violence that threatens to split the tiny nation apart.

An Associated Press reporter saw civilian militias armed with machetes and spears roaming neighborhoods in southern Dili, throwing rocks through the windows of the small, tin-roofed houses and setting them on fire. Nearby, the sound of gunfire could be heard.

Hundreds of panicked residents sought shelter in churches as Australian troops arrived in tanks and Land Rovers to try to restore order. The number of casualties wasn’t known but ambulances were seen leaving the scene with sirens blaring.

The gangs are apparently allied with police and former soldiers angered by the dismissal in March of 600 soldiers – more than 40 percent of the country’s army – after they went on a monthlong strike to protest poor working conditions.

At least 23 people have been killed in a week of fighting that poses the most serious threat to the desperately poor country since it broke from Indonesian-rule in 1999. It comes despite the nation receiving millions of dollars in international assistance over the last seven years, much of it focused on building up its army.

East Timor’s government asked for international help earlier this week, saying it could not control the situation, and hundreds of Australian troops have already arrived. New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal have also agreed to send forces.

Two Australian tanks moved into the Villa Verde neighborhood early Saturday as the militias torched homes, sending screaming women and children running into the streets. Other soldiers arrived in Land Rovers and set up positions along the perimeter.

The dismissed soldiers are largely from the country’s west, while the military’s leadership originates from the east. The renegade soldiers alleged they were discriminated against, routinely passed up for promotions and given the worst assignments.

After engaging in deadly riots last month, the rebels fled the capital, setting up positions in the surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla warfare if they were not reinstated.

Some disillusioned youths have also apparently picked up arms, and ordinary citizens, frustrated by poverty and unemployment in the tiny nation also are taking up sides.

Hundreds of Australian troops supported by helicopters roaring overhead fanned out across the capital Friday, aiming to keep violence between the army and former soldiers from exploding into civil war.

A small contingent of camouflage-clad U.S. Marines landed in Dili to protect the American Embassy, and Indonesia closed its land border with East Timor as the spiraling conflict drew in police, machete-wielding youths and residents frustrated by poverty and unemployment.

In a sign of the depth of hatred dividing the Indian Ocean nation, a mob torched the house of a government minister, killing five children and an adult whose charred bodies were found Friday.

The bloodshed that started after the March firing of 600 disgruntled soldiers – nearly half the 1,400-member army – is the most serious crisis East Timor has faced since it broke from Indonesian rule in 1999. The impoverished nation received millions of dollars in international aid over the last seven years, much of it focused on building up the military.

Thousands of people have abandoned their homes, many seeking refuge inside the United Nations compound in Dili.

Machete-wielding youths were seen stopping a bus outside the capital Friday, asking passengers where they were from before letting them go.

Hundreds of heavily armed Australian troops patrolled the streets on foot or in armored personnel carriers, backed up by Black Hawk helicopters. More Australians are expected to arrive in the coming days for a total 1,300.

New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal – East Timor’s former colonial power – have pledged or sent smaller numbers of troops.

On Thursday, a crowd stormed a Dili neighborhood, where they smashed windows and used gasoline to burn houses, including the residence of Home Affairs Minister Rogerio Lobato.

Lobato was not inside but six of his relatives were killed, including two young children and three teenagers, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said.

“I ran away when I saw them coming,” neighbor Victor Do Dantos, 20, said.

The renegade soldiers were fired after a monthlong strike to protest what they said were poor working conditions. Many fought in the resistance against brutal Indonesian rule and felt they were denied recognition, from promotions to coveted assignments, because of discrimination.


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