April 30, 2006

East Timorese shelter at convent

DILI (Reuters) - Thousands of East Timorese sought shelter
in a convent and other safe havens on Sunday, fearing a
resurgence of protests by disgruntled soldiers and their
supporters that resulted in four deaths last week.

The cash-strapped government dismissed more than 500
soldiers earlier in April, prompting a series of demonstrations
joined by groups the government says have broader motives.

A demonstration on Friday turned violent, as protesters
burned cars and threw rocks at police, and officers fired into
the crowd. That violence and sounds of gunfire in the seaside
capital, Dili, for hours afterward prompted many to seek

"Some people fled their home to some places in Dili,
especially at convents," East Timor police chief Paulo de
Fatima Martins told Reuters by telephone.

"I don't have exactly the number but in Don Bosco convent
it's about 4,000 people. Beside Don Bosco they are also at the
Timor Leste police academy (and) military headquarters," he

Although most shops remained closed in Dili, the situation
on Sunday was calm, and some who fled had returned home.

One refugee, 35-year-old Olivio, told Reuters: "I fled home
with my family because we heard sounds of gunfire and I am
still traumatized by the 1999 incident."

After decades of simmering rebellion against Indonesian
forces, the East Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for
independence in a 1999 referendum marked by bloodshed in which
an estimated 1,000 people were killed.

Most of the violence was blamed on pro-Jakarta militia
backed by elements of the Indonesian military.

Friday's protest had been planned as the last in a series
by the sacked soldiers. They say their dismissal was unfair and
have demanded a quick government investigation.

In a statement on Sunday, foreign minister Jose Ramos-Horta
said: "Throughout the demonstration the dismissed soldiers
largely behaved properly. As it is now well known, the
demonstration was hijacked by young hooligans and thugs."

"Therefore the government will continue to show its
willingness in engaging the dismissed soldiers in dialogue to
go to the truth and root causes of their grievances."

"Dili is slowly returning to normal," Ramos-Horta also
said, promising the government would look at ways to help those
who lost property or were otherwise affected.

A one-time Portuguese colony, East Timor, north of
Australia and 2,100 km (1,300 miles) east of Jakarta, was
invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and formally annexed the following

Australian troops with a U.N. mandate were critical to
bringing peace to East Timor in 1999. After an interim period
of U.N. administration, it became independent in 2002.

One of the world's poorest countries, East Timor has
considerable energy resources but is only now starting to
develop them.

(With additional reporting in Jakarta by Telly Nathalia)