Foreign troops struggled Friday to stave off civil war in East Timor after soldiers gunned down unarmed police in the capital, slaying nine of them, and a mob torched a house killing all six people inside. The death toll in four days of violence in the world's youngest nation rose to 20. Members of the tiny country's 800-member army who opened fire on police late Thursday suspected them of allying themselves with a band of about 600 dismissed soldiers who have engaged in days of deadly street battles with the army in Dili.
Witnessess said the six bodies were found in a house where assailants arrived Thurday to break its windows, spray it with gasoline and then sit it on fire. The hour-long attack on the national police headquarters ended only after U.N. police and military advisers negotiated a cease-fire with the Timorese soldiers under which the police were to surrender their weapons and leave the building. "As the unarmed police were being escorted out, army soldiers opened fire on them, killing nine and wounding 27 others, including two U.N. police advisers," U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in New York.
The unrest in East Timor is the most serious threat to the desperately poor country since it won independence from Indonesia in 1999, and the attack on policemen illustrates the dangers facing peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia, the first of whom arrived on Thursday and Friday. The U.N. Security Council urged East Timor to take "all necessary steps" to end the violence that has claimed 25 lives since late April.
The sound of heavy machine-gun fire, mortar and small arms was heard from nearby hills and machete-weilding youths were seen stopping a bus on the city's outskirts, though they allowed it to pass unharmed. The violence followed the government's decision in March to fire 600 soldiers 40 percent of the military after they staged a month-long strike to protest poor pay and conditions, moves that highlighted simmering tensions in a nation divided along east-west lines. The dismissed soldiers were largely from the country's west where militias were considered to be sympathetic to Indonesia during East Timor's independence struggle while the military's leadership originated from the east.
After engaging in deadly riots last month, rebel troops fled the capital, setting up positions in the surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla warfare if they were not reinstated. Some police officers have also begun to ally themselves with the disgruntled soldiers, Jean-Marie Guehenno, the chief of the U.N. peacekeeping department, said in New York. He said Thursday's shooting at the national police headquarters apparently was triggered when the officers were escorted from the building, saw the soldiers and "became nervous and started to hurry." "What I understand, in the very tense situation that existed there, there was some movement and then soldiers apparently opened fire and that's when the police officers were killed," said Guehenno, who briefed the U.N. Security Council on the latest turmoil.
U.N. personnel evacuated the wounded. An unspecified number were critically injured and hospitalized. "The mission reports that U.N. personnel were able to rescue some 62 additional East Timor police officers and they are now being sheltered in the U.N. compound," Dujarric said.
Australia, which led a multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor in 1999 that ended a bloody rampage by Indonesian troops and their militia proxies, said it would send the nation up to 1,300 troops, along with ships, helicopters and armored personnel carriers. Hundreds of heavily-armed Australian forces arrived Thursday and Friday, with the remainder expected to reach East Timor as early as Saturday. They immediately started securing the airport. "I fully anticipate we will have a calming effect," Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio. New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said her nation will send up 120 troops. Portugal, which colonized East Timor for four centuries until 1975, also got the go-ahead to send 120 forces, while Malaysia pledged 500, reports the AP.
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