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The Jakarta Post

The Jakarta Post, 6/6/2006 10:35:43 AM

Arson, looting continue in East Timor's capital

DILI (AP): Mobs looted sacks of seeds from a warehouse and set buildings on fire in East Timor's capital Tuesday as Australian peacekeepers blocked a major road following reports that protesters and gangs were trying to infiltrate the city.

The unrest was less severe than the fighting between military factions and gang warfare that erupted last month, but underscored the huge challenge for international forces and East Timor's fractured government as they try to restore a sense ofnormalcy to Dili.

Tens of thousands of fearful residents have fled their homes and are living in makeshift camps and shelters in and around the city. UN agencies have delivered emergency airlifts of food rations, cooking sets, tents and blankets.

The looting of a warehouse with agricultural supplies occurred near the city center, and peacekeepers did not immediately intervene. In neighborhoods near the airport, several plumes of smoke rose from buildings set on fire by gangs of young men.

Australian forces blocked traffic on the main road near the airport in one of their most robust security checks in recent days. Reports have circulated that anti-government demonstrators planned to hold a large rally in the capital, though a similar report last week proved unfounded.

On Monday, East Timorese lawmakers met in Parliament to discuss the country's turmoil and a top Cabinet minister met with rebel soldiers for reconciliation talks, as the fragile government showed signs of reviving.

Foreign Minister and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos Horta visited several rebel commanders whose dismissal in March helped trigger the crisis.

"They had a good talk," ministry spokesman Chris Santos said. He gave no details, citing the sensitivity of the situation.

Parliament's session was its first since fighting surged last month in Dili, although lawmakers said some colleagues did not attend because they feared for their safety or lacked transport.

Fifty legislators turned up, enough for a quorum in the 88-seat house.

Elections are scheduled for next year, but some East Timorese blame Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri for the turmoil and demand his ouster.

Alkatiri oversaw the dismissal in March of 600 striking soldiers, who clashed with loyalist troops and fled to the hills. Rival gangs took to the streets in the absence of security forces.

Ramos Horta also became defense minister after an Alkatiri ally quit the post in an effort to defuse the crisis. The rebels he met Monday did not include the most prominent one, Alfredo Reinado, but Horta's office said the minister planned to visit him in the next day or two.

The goal of the meeting was to explore "avenues for all-inclusive talks which will lead to a lasting resolution of the political issues," the Defense Ministry said.

East Timor faces a difficult road as it tries to heal deep divisions in the government and armed forces. (***)

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