May 26, 2006

Timor gangs torch houses, Australian troops patrol

By David Fox

DILI, May 27 - Gangs of youths allied to feuding East Timor
police or army units went on the rampage in parts of the
capital on Saturday, torching houses and vehicles, as
Australian and Malaysian peacekeeping troops stepped up their

Youths armed with machetes, swords and knives patrolled
neighborhoods near government buildings against what they said
were rogue army elements who were planning to return from the
hills surrounding the capital of the world's newest independent

Black smoke billowed above the city, but residents were
generally calm, gathering on corners to hear gossip and news
about the situation.

"The FDTL are trying to come back. We will stop them," said
one sword-wielding youth, referring to the group of hundreds of
soldiers who rebelled after being dismissed by the army last

The split in the army is mirrored in the general population
with neighborhoods and street gangs allied to one faction or
another. The police have also effectively disintegrated,
further complicating the situation.

The government earlier this week asked Australia, New
Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia to send troops to help restore
order and on Saturday patrols by foreign forces were the only
sign of any real authority.

The ministry of foreign affairs said the cabinet was aiming
to meet on Saturday for emergency talks.

Residents say the rebellion has turned into a protest
against the government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who
they say has failed to deliver any economic or social
development since Timor became an independent state in 2002.

An election is scheduled for early next year, but some
diplomats say the government cannot last that long.

A convoy of around 30 heavily armed Australian troops in
civilian four-wheel-drive vehicles drove around the streets
outside the government secretariat, but they appeared to steer
clear of the neighborhoods where houses were being torched.

Malaysian troops also patrolled the streets for the first
time since their arrival on Thursday. They were greeted with
curious stares by residents, with children running behind their
cars as they cruised through the suburbs.

Around 500 troops rebelled last month after they were
dismissed for protesting over what they said was discrimination
against soldiers from the east of the country. Most of the
military leadership is said to come from the west.

The simmering rebellion turned bloody last week when police
were routed after they tried to disarm the sacked soldiers.
Officials say around 15 people have been killed in the past
three days.

President Xanana Gusmao was trying to broker talks between
the government and the rebels.

At least three houses belonging to relatives of army
officers were torched in the capital on Saturday by gangs
allied to the dismissed soldiers.

Scattered gunfire could be heard, but there were no
immediate reports of injuries.

"There is going to be a lot of this revenge stuff going
on," said one businessman who had shuttered up his office
supplies shop against the possibility of looters.

Foreign troops remain the only sign of authority on the
streets of the capital and while their presence has calmed the
situation, it is unclear how well armed the rebels are or if
the regular army can be relied upon to disarm them.

The Australians say their aim is first to restore order to
the capital before fanning out into the rural areas where most
of the 1 million population live and where the rebel have fled