August 31, 2006

Forces hunt East Timor rebel chief

By Lirio da Fonseca

DILI (Reuters) - International security forces and U.N.
police in East Timor have launched a search for rebel leader
Major Alfredo Reinado who escaped from jail with more than 50
prisoners, officials said on Thursday.

Reinado, who was one of the figureheads of a revolt that
plunged the fledgling nation into chaos in May, escaped from
Becora jail near the capital on Wednesday.

Brigadier Mick Slater, the head of Australian troops in
East Timor, said the prisoners walked out the jail's front gate
during visiting hours. The ease of the escape will raise
concerns over the fragile security situation in the former
Portuguese colony.

Joao Domingos, head of Becora jail's administration, said
grass cutters were used to intimidate guards during the escape.

"All Alfredo's men escaped along with others who were
involved in ordinary crimes. We are confident the ones who were
involved in ordinary crimes will surrender," he told reporters.

He said he was not aware whether guards aided in the escape
in which he said 57 got away with 148 still in confinement.

"They threatened us with grass shears. They said 'open the
doors or you will die'. We opened the doors and 57 got away,"
Domingos said.

The United Nations agreed last week on a new mission to
East Timor, comprising 1,608 police, despite a dispute over
whether Australian-led international troops already there
should remain independent or be part of a U.N. force.

"The United Nations and the international security forces
have agreed to work closely together and coordinate efforts on
recapturing all the prisoners who escaped," the United Nations
Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste said in a statement. Timor
Leste is the official name for East Timor.


Slater described the mass breakout as disappointing and
said it was likely the escapees were now armed, although Dili
remained quiet and calm.

"We have sealed off the city. We did that within about 15
minutes of the escape yesterday," Slater told Australian
Broadcasting Corp. radio on Thursday.

He said the escape appeared organized and that the
prisoners had broken into smaller groups, but most were still
in Dili.

"It is a matter now of trying to find them in parts of the
city that are really very dense rabbit warrens of suburbs,"
Slater said.

East Timor suffered a series of protests that evolved into
widespread violence in May after 600 members of the former
Portuguese colony's 1,400-strong army were sacked.

In late May, former military police commander Reinado led
his followers into the mountains behind Dili and refused to
give up weapons until then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri

An estimated 100,000 people were displaced and at least 20
killed in the violence, which led to deployment of a
2,500-strong international peacekeeping force.

The revolt stemmed from divisions between troops from the
east and those from the west of the country, which was ruled by
Jakarta from 1976 until an independence referendum in 1999.

That vote was marked by violence blamed largely on
pro-Jakarta militia with ties to the Indonesian army. An
international peacekeeping force was sent to the territory,
ushering in a transitional period of U.N. administration. East
Timor became a fully fledged nation in 2002.

(Additional reporting by Paul Tait in SYDNEY)