May 28, 2006

Timorese pray for peace as youth gangs rampage

By David Fox

DILI (Reuters) - Frightened Timorese packed churches to
pray for peace on Sunday, but gangs allied to feuding police or
army units continued to rampage through the capital, evading
foreign peacekeeping troops and torching homes and vehicles.

This Reuters correspondent saw one gang of about 20 youths
chase a man into a half-built house before bludgeoning him to
death in the doorway with rocks and clubs.

"He was setting fires," said one of the ringleaders,
seemingly the oldest at around 20.

Smoke was still billowing above several neighborhoods in
Dili in the afternoon as the gangs, which identify with army
factions from either the east or west of this tiny nation,
marked out their territories with makeshift barricades and
roadblocks and took revenge on rivals.

Australian troops, part of a 2,000-strong multinational
deployment following the East Timor government's appeal for
help, stepped up patrols in the capital but appeared to hold
back from directly engaging the rampaging gangs.

They were backed by small patrols of Malaysian and New
Zealand troops.

"Why aren't the Australians doing anything?" said one
youth, manning a barricade on the main road leading from the

Individual soldiers said they were under instructions not
to intervene unless they were threatened themselves.

"It's a trickier operation than some people think,"
Australian Prime Minister John Howard told the Australian
Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday. "Nobody should assume that it's
just a simple walk-in-the-park military operation - it's quite

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, whose foot-dragging over a
dispute by disgruntled soldiers is said by many Timorese and
diplomats to have been the cause of the trouble, said on
Saturday that it would take time for the Australians to restore

Around 600 of the 1,400-strong Timorese army rebelled in
April after they were dismissed for protesting over what they
said was discrimination against soldiers from the west of the
country. Most military leaders are said to come from the east.


The police force has also virtually disintegrated, but an
elite Australian-trained special forces unit is believed to be
loosely allied to the disgruntled soldiers.

On Sunday, thousands of Timorese prayed for peace in Dili's
dozens of churches, with priests calling for calm.

"In Jesus's name, urge your brothers and cousins to stop
the fighting," said Father Antonio Gomez at Santo Carlo church
in the city center.

There has been no sign that feuding factions of the armed
forces have clashed since soldiers killed nine policemen last
week, and most of the violence and clashes now taking place
seems stoked by the youth gangs.

The commander of the Australian troops said the soldiers
were concentrating on disarming the gangs.

"We will detain anyone who is suspected of having
undertaken or participated in a fight," Brigadier Mick Slater
told reporters. "We will be disarming everybody in Dili.

East Timor is one of the world's poorest nations and
massive unemployment has seen the formation of dozens of gangs
whose sole aims seem to be to practise martial arts and fight
turf wars -- regardless of the political situation.

But some residents say the rebellion has turned into a
protest against Alkatiri's government which they accuse of
failing 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 Portuguese colony for centuries, East Timor was annexed
by Indonesia in 1976 in a move the United Nations condemned and
much of the population resisted.

Australia led a U.N.-backed intervention force to East
Timor in 1999 to quell violence by pro-Indonesian militias
after a referendum vote for independence. This was finally
achieved in 2002 after almost three years of UN administration.


Apart from some coffee production, East Timor has virtually
no economy but has signed lucrative oil and gas exploration
deals for the Timor Sea.

Analysts say the government has been too slow to identify
development projects to utilise this revenue or the millions in
foreign aid that have been injected into the country.

Dili remains a ramshackle, sleepy capital of around 400,000
people and its myriad poor neighborhoods with deeply pot-holed
roads are a nightmare to patrol for the foreign troops, but
perfect cover for the marauding gangs.

Most residents flee their neighborhoods at the first sign
of trouble to seek sanctuary in the grounds of churches. Gangs
drift through the neighborhoods, targeting homes belonging to
rivals and torching them, before moving on.

"This is nothing to do with the current situation," said
Eduardo Villieras, a businessman. "These are just hooligans
causing trouble and settling old scores.

Some want to see the Australians take a firmer hand.

"They need to crack heads to get them to stop," said Felipe