June 26, 2006

Protesters cheer as East Timor PM quits

By David Fox

DILI (Reuters) - East Timor's embattled prime minister,
Mari Alkatiri, resigned on Monday, saying he would share
responsibility for a political crisis that has gripped Asia's
newest nation for over two months.

There was no immediate word on a replacement, but news of
his departure was welcomed by thousands of protesters who have
been demonstrating in the capital for the past week. They
cheered and car horns blared as word of the resignation spread.

Alkatiri said he was stepping down to avoid the resignation
of the nation's popular president, Xanana Gusmao, who had
threatened to quit himself unless the prime minister left

"I am ready to resign from my position of prime minister of
the government of RDTL (East Timor) so as to avoid the
resignation of his excellency the president of the republic,"
Alkatiri told a news conference.

He said he was doing so "having deeply reflected on the
present situation prevailing in the country ... assuming my own
share of responsibility for the crisis affecting our country."

Alkatiri added that he was "determined not to contribute to
any deepening of the crisis." He read out his statement and
refused to answer questions.

The prime minister has been widely blamed for violence that
erupted in May as fighting within the armed forces spiraled
into rioting, arson and looting in the streets of the capital,

The violence ended only with the arrival last month of a
2,700-strong Australian-led peacekeeping force that has
disarmed the army and police and taken responsibility for

Calls for Alkatiri's resignation have been the rallying cry
of protests by thousands of Timorese that peaked in the past
six days after damaging revelations in an Australian news
documentary linked him to a plot to arm a civilian militia.

"The important thing is that the East Timorese fix up these
problems themselves and it does look like they are getting to a
point of resolution," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander
Downer said in Paris.

"You can't expect us to carry the burden of security while
you yourselves sit back in nothing but a state of impasse," he
told Australian television.


One of the country's best-known political figures, Nobel
Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta is being touted as a
possible replacement for Alkatiri should Gusmao ask parliament
to form a national unity government to rule until elections due
by May 2007.

Neither Ramos-Horta, who himself had resigned on Sunday,
nor Gusmao -- both urbane and Western-leaning -- belong to
Fretilin. The party is seen in the West as
socialist-orientated, a legacy of the years its leaders spent
in exile in Mozambique or Angola during East Timor's long
independence struggle.

Another possible contender for premier is Ana Pessoa,
Ramos-Horta's ex-wife, who is a staunch Fretilin member.

Whoever takes over, many Timorese and potential foreign
investors want to see more done to rebuild the country's
infrastructure and develop projects to create jobs in a country
where unemployment is around 70 percent.

Although Timor's only export is "boutique" coffee, the
country has potentially vast untapped oil and gas reserves in
the sea that divides it from Australia, and has already earned
hundreds of millions of dollars in exploration rights.

East Timor was a Portuguese colony for centuries before a
revolution in Lisbon in 1975 gave the territory a brief taste
of independence. Indonesian troops invaded a few days later and
Jakarta annexed East Timor in 1976.

After a 1999 vote for independence marked by violence
blamed largely on pro-Jakarta militia with ties to the
Indonesian army, an international peacekeeping force moved into
the territory, ushering in a transitional period of U.N.
administration before East Timor became a fully fledged nation
in 2002.