May 31, 2006

Timor capital calm after president takes charge

By David Fox

DILI (Reuters) - East Timor's capital was calm for the
first time in more than a week on Wednesday as residents
digested news that independence hero President Xanana Gusmao
had assumed sole responsibility for the country's security.

Gusmao's proclamation on Tuesday night appeared to quell
the violence by gangs of youths who have been on a rampage of
looting and arson sparked by the dismissal of nearly half the

Gusmao said he was taking sole responsibility for the tiny
nation's armed forces and would also be in charge of
coordinating a 2,500-strong Australian-led international
peacekeeping force that East Timor asked for last week to
restore order.

His move -- assuming emergency powers without declaring a
formal state of emergency -- is seen as further isolating Prime
Minister Mari Alkatiri, whose handling of the affair has been
heavily criticized both in Timor and abroad.

"There was always a wedge between them, but that wedge has
been hit with a sledgehammer," one diplomat told Reuters.

But Alkatiri added confusion to Timor's already complex
political situation on Wednesday by insisting he was still in

"You are wrong, completely wrong, he (Gusmao) is not taking
control," he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

"The defense and security is still part of the government,
and I am the head of the government," he said, blaming the
confusion of a misinterpretation of Gusmao's statement from
Portuguese into English.

On the street, those who have heard the news have no doubt
who is in charge.

"This is good. Now we can go back to our homes," said Jose
Aurajo, who has slept for the past five nights along with
hundreds of other people in the carpark of his neighborhood

"Gusmao will never let the nation down. Alkatiri must take
responsibility for this and must resign."


Gusmao is seen as man of the people, an independence hero
who fought against Indonesia's colonial rule and who spent
years in jail for his beliefs.

Alkatiri, who spent much of his life as an exile in Angola
and Mozambique, is seen as far more aloof and lacking Gusmao's
liberation pedigree.

On Wednesday, a few plumes of smoke rose into the sky above
the hill-ringed capital, but nothing like the pall from dozens
of torched houses in previous days.

With nearly the entire Australian-led peacekeeping force
now on the ground in the capital, residents who had fled their
homes for sanctuary in churches and schools began returning to
their neighborhoods.

A top Australian military official said Canberra planned to
keep troops in East Timor for at least six months but hoped to
scale down its deployment as order returned.

"Our planning base is on the basis of a six-month
deployment," military commander Angus Houston told a
parliamentary hearing.

"My hope is that as things stabilize, we can adjust the
force downwards at some time in the future. But I'm not focused
on that at the moment."

Australia last led troops into East Timor in 1999 to
restore law and order after violence by militia groups,
supported by elements of the Indonesian military, following a
vote to break free of Indonesian rule.

The current violence and request for foreign help are major
embarrassments for the government, handed the keys to the
country by the United Nations in 2002 after the world body ran
the nation following the bloody referendum.