East Timor on violent course

in The Australian

HUNDREDS of dismissed East Timorese soldiers have threatened to launch attacks in Dili and across the nation by tomorrow, unless the Government of Mari Alkatiri is dissolved.
A fresh crisis could see pressure mount for a return of Australian troops as the vanguard of a new peacekeeping force. East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao has met with Australia's ambassador to East Timor, Margaret Twomey, to brief her on the situation.
John Howard said yesterday Australia would consider any request from the Government of East Timor to send troops.
The Defence Department has contingency plans in place to evacuate an estimated 800 Australians living in East Timor in the event of a breakdown of law and order in the capital.
"There has been a very difficult situation there in the past few days and I hope it stabilises," Mr Howard told Southern Cross Broadcasting. "But it is an independent country and it's really a matter of Australia anxiously watching and being willing to help if we can, and, if it's appropriate, and most importantly of all, only if we were asked."
Mr Gusmao was last night given a 48-hour deadline to exercise his presidential powers and sack the Government of Prime Minister Alkatiri and abolish the country's military.
Opposition figure Fernando Lasana said Mr Gusmao had the rebels' full support "but the decision to act - including whether to invite the support of our neighbours such as Australia and New Zealand - is now in his hands". "We hope this will not lead to civil war - I think all parties will try to avoid that - but it is clear this Government is incapable of solving the problems facing it," he said.
Many residents have abandoned Dili in the past few days in anticipation of open warfare, despite reassurances from Mr Gusmao and Dr Alkatiri.
More than two dozen retired Falintil guerilla fighters met yesterday to draft the declaration. It was signed and delivered by Lieutenant Gastao Salsinha, the leader of 591 soldiers sacked in February for deserting their posts amid claims of discrimination in the military.
The soldiers, all from the western-based Loromonu ethnic group, say they have been overlooked for promotion in favour of members of the country's Lorosae, or eastern group.
They have been joined in recent days by military police, who absconded with automatic weapons and small arms and who are travelling in military vehicles.
Groups of these police were yesterday guarding the narrow, winding road leading to the mountain hideout from where Lieutenant Salsinha and his backers issued their challenge.
Many more soldiers in full combat uniform are gathered at the house from where the declaration was delivered, evidently charged with protecting the rebel movement from East Timor's standing military, who have been ordered to hunt them down. The crisis has escalated after rioting last week in Dili left an unknown number of people dead.
Mr Gusmao telephoned Lieutenant Solsinha late yesterday afternoon in a last-minute attempt to stave off what amounted to a declaration of preparedness for war, but the rebel leader told Mr Gusmao, who is the leader of the country's armed forces, that it was "too late".