1 June 2006 Edition

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International: Sacking of army staff spark for widespread conflict

East Timor - crisis talks as thousands flee violence

The legacy of division and violence is playing havoc with East Timor's young democracy. On Monday 29 May, President and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao and Mari Alkatiri, held crisis talks to try to regain control. It was the first meeting between the two since the intervention of an 1,800-strong force of Australian peacekeepers. Despite their presence thousands have fled their homes and aid agencies say supplies are being looted.

International military intervention was ordered after brutal clashes between government troops and disaffected former members of the security forces. The violence was sparked by a dispute over the sacking of army staff and has since turned into ethnic violence, with factions of soldiers from the East and West of the country fighting each other and terrorising the civilian population.

Angry crowds gathered outside Dili's presidential palace calling for the resignation of the prime minister. Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta has admitted the government's failure to address discontent in the security forces was a main cause of violence.

On Sunday 28 May President Xanana Gusmao met a representative of the rebel soldiers who insisted they were prepared to discuss peace and said they would not attack Dili. East Timor's foreign minister said the government would review some of the soldiers' complaints on a case-by-case basis.

The Red Cross said as many as 50,000 people had fled their homes to escape the violence, and aid agencies are predicting a humanitarian crisis unless order is restored soon. The UN depot is full of makeshift shelters and tents. People cook over open fires and sanitation is at best basic. However, many non-essential UN staff are pulling out and face evacuation to Darwin in northern Australia, a UN spokeswoman said. About 390 people have been flown out, leaving about 50 staff to keep the UN mission to East Timor (UNOTIL) running. Horta admitted that conditions inside these emergency camps were "horrendous".

Australian aid agency World Vision said the violence and looting threatened the distribution of food and water supplies to 25,000 internal refugees, and called for more forthright intervention by Australian troops.

Witnesses said some houses were burned in parts of Dili on Monday morning, but that the city was generally quieter.

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 the 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 won't last that long. A Portuguese colony for centuries, the country was annexed by Indonesia in 1976 in a move the United Nations condemned and much of the population resisted.

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