Soldiers fire on police, 9 die; troops sent to East Timor

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DILI, East Timor (AP) – Soldiers fired on unarmed police in East Timor’s capital Thursday, killing nine and wounding 27, as international troops landed to try to end the fighting that threatens to push the country closer to civil war.

Among the wounded were two United Nations police advisers, part of U.N. staff trying to end an hourlong attack by soldiers on the national police headquarters in Dili, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York.

The U.N. police and military advisers negotiated a cease-fire with the Timorese soldiers, under which the police officers were to surrender their weapons and leave the building, Dujarric said.

“As the unarmed police were being escorted out, army soldiers opened fire on them killing nine and wounding 27 others, including two U.N. police advisers,” he said.

The unrest in East Timor is the most serious threat to the desperately poor country since it won independence from Indonesia in 1999, and the attack on policemen illustrates the dangers facing peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia, the first of whom started arriving Thursday.

Today, the sound of heavy machine-gun fire, mortar and small arms was heard from the hills surrounding Dili. The streets in the city were virtually deserted, with frightened residents holing up in their homes, schools and churches.

Thurday’s violence brought to 14 the death toll of recent fighting between the country’s 800-member army and a band of about 600 dismissed soldiers. Some police officers have also begun to split away and ally themselves with the dismissed soldiers, said Jean-Marie Guehenno, the chief of the U.N. peacekeeping department.

Guehenno briefed the U.N. Security Council late Thursday on the turmoil. He said the killings Thursday were preceded by a day of heavy fighting in which the army attacked police who were suspected of joining the rebel soldiers.

The police officers in the headquarters were suspected of being allied with the dissidents.

The police saw the soldiers as they left and “became nervous and started to hurry,” Guehenno said. That apparently triggered the shooting.

“What I understand, in the very tense situation that existed there, there was some movement and then soldiers apparently opened fire and that’s when the police officers were killed,” Guehenno said.

Hundreds of people at East Timor’s main airport cheered earlier in the day as an Australian plane delivered the first international troops sent to keep the country from civil war.

Thank God!” some cried and shouted.

The 130 Australian commandos secured the airport as gunbattles raged elsewhere in the capital, killing at least three people and wounding more than a dozen.

Australia said it will send up to 1,300 troops, along with ships, helicopters and armored personnel carriers, to the Connecticut-sized nation.

Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson said the full contingent will reach East Timor as early as Saturday and “will use whatever level of force is required.”

“I fully anticipate we will have a calming effect,” Nelson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said her nation will send up 120 troops.

Australia led a multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor in 1999 that ended a rampage by Indonesian troops and their militia proxies after the former Indonesian province voted for independence from Jakarta. Some 1,500 people died.

“Welcome Aussie soldiers, please help us once again,” said Judit Isaac, a 47-year-old housewife.

East Timor, the newest member of the U.N., has been plagued by unrest since more than 40 percent of its armed forces were fired in March after going on strike to protest alleged discrimination in the military.

The crisis stems in part from the rush to create an army following East Timor’s independence from Indonesia.

Critics say veterans of the independence struggle – the renegade soldiers among them – often were passed over for key positions. The ex-soldiers also claim they were discriminated against because they came from the country’s west, while the military leadership hails from the east.

Some hard-liners fled the capital last month after participating in deadly riots, threatening guerrilla warfare from surrounding hillsides if they were not reinstated.

The fighting prompted the government to ask for international troops earlier this week.

Preparing for the worst, dozens of foreigners fled the country. The U.S. Embassy has ordered the evacuation of all nonessential personal and advised American citizens in the country to leave.

Indonesia ruled East Timor with an iron fist for 24 years. Human rights groups say as many as 200,000 were killed under the occupation.

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