Subject: AP: East Timor residents flee capital fearing renewed violence

Also: AFP: Thousands flee Dili amid unrest rumours

Associated Press Worldstream

May 5, 2006 Friday 9:48 AM GMT

East Timor residents flee capital fearing renewed violence with ex-soldiers

By GUIDO GUILLIART, Associated Press Writer

DILI East Timor

Rumors circulated by mobile phone text messages of an imminent attack by disgruntled ex-soldiers who clashed violently with police last week prompted thousands of residents to flee East Timor's capital on Friday, officials and witnesses said.

Residents started leaving their homes a week after clashes between hundreds of former soldiers and police left five people dead and dozens injured violence that has prompted fears the government in Dili has lost control.

Political leaders said Friday the situation was calm and appealed to frightened inhabitants to return to the city.

Nearly 600 soldiers were fired in March for going on strike and have threatened to wage a guerrilla war if the government fails to reinstate them with better terms of employment.

Phone text messages said the ex-soldiers, supported by some police and military elements, were planning to attack the capital and the army headquarters on Friday. The origin of the messages was impossible to acertain.

U.N. political officer Scott Cunliffe in Dili dismissed the rumors as false, but wouldn't speculate on who might be behind them.

"As I see it, it's all calm at the moment in Dili," he said by phone. The concerns are based on "unfounded rumors of attacks or clashes that they suspect might take place ... It's playing on people's fears."

The message was nonetheless taken seriously by the many who took to East Timor's roads.

"I have decided to leave Dili with my whole family since East Timor's police and military are not united in solving the crisis," said Archngo Moniz, a taxi driver, as he prepared to leave for the town of Maliana, about 30 kilometer (20 miles) west of Dili. "I don't want to suffer anymore, it was enough to have suffering under Indonesia," he said.

Another resident, Jose Gusmao, criticized the government for not resolving the crisis with ex-soldiers more quickly.

"The government is too slow in handling the current situation," he said, "I'm leaving Dili because it is not safe anymore for me and my family ... I don't want to fight with my fellow countrymen."

Foreign Minister Ramos-Horta called on the media to be careful with rumors.

"Democracy is still young in our country and people react fearfully to incidents by leaving the city," he said in a statement.

"The situation in Dili now is quite calm and under control. Therefore, I together with our President Xanana Gusmao ask the people to please come back to their residence," Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said.

Among those fleeing were government employees whom Foreign Minister Ramos-Horta ordered to return to work by Monday "or face disciplinary measures."

The ministry also raised the official death toll from earlier violence to five and said 45 homes had been burned down and 116 partially destroyed.

In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard, speaking before the rumors took off in Dili, said his country would consider sending troops to East Timor if a request was made.

"I certainly hope that the possibility doesn't come along, I hope they can resolve things internally," he said.

"There has been a very difficult situation there in the past few days and I hope it stabilizes."

Washington on Thursday authorized the departure of all nonemergency workers and their families and urged American citizens to postpone travel to the Southeast Asian country.

The State Department said the U.S. Embassy had received reports that violence could continue and urged Americans to leave. It said with only one road to the airport and three daily departing flights, getting away might become difficult.

In last week's rampage, hundreds of dismissed soldiers burned cars and shops in Dili.

In August 1999, East Timor's people voted for independence after 24 years of Indonesian rule during which rights groups estimate 100,000-250,000 people were killed.

Associated Press writer Michael Corder in Sydney contributed to this report. 

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Agence France Presse -- English

May 5, 2006 Friday 7:48 AM GMT

Thousands flee Dili amid unrest rumours

DILI, May 5 2006

At least 21,000 residents have fled the East Timorese capital Dili, a minister said Friday, amid rumours of impending clashes between the military and police despite repeated government assurances of their safety.

Roads were filled with cars, trucks and motorbikes packed with household goods such as refrigerators, televisions, beds and sofas, witnesses said. Dili has a usual population of about 167,000.

"At this point the number of people leaving the city of Dili is around 20,000, or 5,000 families," Minister for Social Welfare Arsenio Paixao Bano told AFP. He said this figure included families heading to villages south and east of Dili, and not western districts.

Just over 1,000 people had also left by boat to the nearby island of Atauro, Bano said.

Dili residents said they were returning to their villages because of widspread rumours of potential clashes between the military and police.

"I am forced to go to Ossu (in Viveque) because of this conflict between F-FDTL (the East Timorese military) and the police. It seems there is a desire for revenge," one resident, who refused to give his name, told AFP.

"I don't necessarily believe these rumours are true, but I see lots of people leaving, so I have decided to return to my district," he added.

Aderito de Jesus Soares, a human rights lawyer living in Dili, said that in his neighbourhood every second family had left.

"People are really traumatised, so seeing people with guns running around reminds them of 1999," he told AFP, referring to the year East Timor voted for independence following more than two decades of Indonesian rule.

Some 1,400 people were killed by Indonesian-backed militias in the bloodshed that followed.

Truckloads of military families, guarded by armed soldiers, were seen leaving, while rumours that police had also advised their families to depart were causing panic, said de Jesus Soares.

Police and military were deployed to restore calm in Dili after 600 sacked soldiers and their apparent supporters held a protest on April 28 which turned violent. The soldiers had deserted their barracks complaining of discrimination in February and were later sacked.

At least five people were killed, 45 houses burned down and 116 residences partially destroyed in the melee, a statement from Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta said Friday, raising the official toll from an earlier four.

"I wish to reassure the international community that Dili is calm," he said, noting that there had been no further incidents since the riot and residents had also been assured it was safe for them to return home.

"Democracy is still young in our country and people react fearfully to incidents by leaving the city," he added.

Last Friday's violence was the worst unrest to hit Asia's poorest nation since 1999.

The government swore in a committee on Friday aimed at probing the soldiers' complaints, Ramos-Horta said.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Friday raised the possibility of sending troops back to East Timor to help the country's beleaguered government deal with the resurgence of civil unrest.

"We would certainly consider it," Howard said in a radio interview.

"We do have an ongoing interest and therefore responsibility," he said.

New Zealand meanwhile said it would be sympathetic to any request from the United Nations to send troops in to help in East Timor, its Foreign Minister Winston Peters said.

str-mak/sb/mtp


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