Thousands flee nation as East Timor terrorized

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DILI, East Timor (AP) – Tens of thousands of East Timorese fled their burning capital or sought refuge in churches, embassies and the airport Sunday as gangs terrorized neighborhoods virtually at will. The United Nations evacuated hundreds of employees.

Foreign peacekeepers dispersed some militants but they quickly regrouped. The U.N. special representative in Dili said more international peacekeepers may be needed to restore order in the capital.

A week of bloodshed has killed at least 27 people, raising concerns that one of the world’s youngest nations is plunging into a civil war.

A Cabinet meeting was scheduled Monday amid speculation the government may soon collapse or that parliament will be dissolved. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has called the violence a plot to overthrow him.

On Sunday, rival gangs torched homes and battled with machetes for a third straight day, as burning fires filled the sky with dark clouds of smoke.

About 27,000 East Timorese have sought refuge at Dili’s airport, seaport, religious buildings and U.N. shelters, said Robert Ashe, regional representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

But conditions at the tent camps were dire, with almost no sanitation. Children splashed in puddles polluted by human waste and many people had no access to food and drinking water.

Four people were killed Sunday. One was burned while trying to defend his home and the others were shot, witnesses and hospital officials said.

A mob severely beat a man they accused of hiding guns. Foreign reporters intervened and he was rushed bleeding to the hospital.

The United States, Japan, Australia and other nations pulled non-emergency staff out of East Timor. More than 60 Filipinos were evacuated on a Philippine air force plane, and China on Monday planned to fly out nearly 200 of its citizens who had sought safety at its embassy.

The U.N. special representative to East Timor, Sukehiro Hasegawa, said goodbye to about 300 staff members being evacuated to Australia. He said more peacekeepers may be needed to end the lawlessness, and he appealed to local politicians not to fan the flames of hatred.

“They have a difference of views in how to manage the country and the (situation) is very, very fragile,” he said.

Australian troops rumbled toward the sound of gunfire in armored personnel carriers Sunday but seemed to scatter combatants only briefly.

About 2,000 Australian troops were either on the ground or in transit to East Timor, the defense department said. Another 50 Australian police were promised to help contain marauding gangs.

Aquilino Soares Torres, 34, who fled to the airport with his wife, relatives and eight children, complained that the foreign troops were failing to end the conflict.

“They don’t move into the neighborhoods where the violence is taking place,” he said, holding a baby. “I think the situation will get worse. I am ready to leave the country with just the shirt on my back.”

The unrest was triggered by the March firing of 600 disgruntled soldiers – nearly half the 1,400-member army. After staging deadly riots last month, the sacked troops fled into the hills surrounding the seaside capital. On Tuesday, they attacked troops, setting off the latest violence.

East Timor proudly declared itself independent from Indonesia in 2002, three years after a U.N.-supported referendum that triggered an orgy of violence by militias linked to the Indonesian military.

What began this year as a dispute within the country’s armed forces has now spilled over to the general population, which is divided into pro-Indonesian and pro-independance camps.


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