Subject: East Timor minister mulls visit to alleged hit squad leader

Also AFP: Timor needs to disarm population to ensure security : analysts

East Timor minister mulls visit to alleged hit squad leader

06/18/2006 05:37:28 AM EDT


DILI, East Timor_East Timor's foreign minister said Sunday he may visit a former resistance fighter to retrieve guns and discuss his claims that he recently headed a hit squad, formed on the orders of the crisis-hit country's prime minister.

Vincente "Railos" da Concecao claimed in an interview with an Australian TV station earlier this month Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri recruited and armed his men in May, and told him to kill Alkatiri's enemies, including some 600 soldiers he had fired.

Alkatiri has denied the allegations _ which have underscored the murky political backdrop to the crisis facing the fledgling nation _ saying they were part of a smear campaign against him by enemies wanting to oust him.

The allegations have added to the pressure facing the prime minister, and if Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta were to meet with de Conceacao, it could lend his claims some credibility.

Ramos-Horta said he was considering visiting da Concecao on Monday at his mountain camp near the town of Liquisa to persuade him to give up his weapons and discuss the allegations against Alkatiri, who heads the nation's largest political party.

"I might. I'm not so sure yet," Ramos-Horta told reporters. "What is important is that ... we try to collect the weapons ... and then move to the next step and find out who gave the weapons to them."

President Xanana Gusmao, who led East Timor's resistance to Indonesia's brutal rule until it won independence in 1999, might launch his own inquiry into the alleged Alkatiri hit squad, said Ramos-Horta, a close ally of Gusmao.

"The president is not indifferent, quite the contrary," Ramos-Horta said. "He is attentive to these allegations, and ... he's garnering whatever information is available, and he will take action in due course if he has to."

The United Nations has launched an investigation into the violence which will also ask how civilians like da Concecao got hold of assault rifles, Ramos-Horta said.

East Timor has been hit by unrest and political tensions since March, when Alkatiri fired the soldiers. They clashed with rival factions in the security forces, and in one incident soldiers gunned down 10 unarmed police officers.

The fighting gave way last month to widespread street violence. At least 30 people have been killed, and almost 150,000 others fled their homes, with most still living in camps, scared to return to their houses.

The fighting has ebbed since an Australian-led peacekeeping force arrived in the country.

Hundreds of mourners silently gathered Sunday at Dili's Santa Cruz Cemetery _ the scene of a 1991 massacre in which more than 250 people were killed by Indonesian troops _ to bury two of the slain policemen.

Australian soldiers watched the mourners from across a street and two armored personnel carriers were parked nearby.

Australian police are investigating the violence with East Timorese prosecutors and the United Nations.

Australia's Federal Police Commissioner Mick Kelty and its Justice Minister Chris Ellison, who is responsible for the police, discussed the investigations and the nation's security with Timorese Interior Minister Alcino Baras during a visit to Dili, the capital, on Sunday.

Ellison said he was satisfied with the cooperation promised by Baras in the criminal investigations.

They also discussed the role of Malaysia, which will next week add 250 police officers to the 200 Australia has already provided, Ellison said.



18 June 2006 1644 hrs

Timor needs to disarm population to ensure security : analysts

DILI : An arms surrender by renegade soldiers in East Timor is a token step that could usher in short-term stability following recent violence, but seizing weapons that have fallen into civilian hands is key to lasting peace, analysts said.

The country is still gripped with fear and the government must now work swiftly with Australian-led multinational forces to confiscate police and army firearms that have found their way into the hands of civilians since the country descended into civil unrest last month, said Joao Saldanha, executive director of the think tank Timor Institute of Development Studies.

"This is an initial step leading to a stable East Timor, but a very small one that needs to be followed up by more action," he added.

In the meantime moves by renegade soldiers, led by Alfredo Reinado, to hand in weapons to Australian forces have opened the door for a peaceful dialogue to end the crisis, the Harvard-trained Saldanha told AFP.

"Arms in Timor are pretty much in the hands of unknown civilians now," he said.

"That is what creates most of the problem and the fear in the society," he added, noting that while there has been no recent violence on the streets, more than 133,000 refugees remain under the protection of peacekeepers and international aid groups in camps around the capital.

Trouble flared in March when the unpopular Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri sacked 600 soldiers from the nation's west, or half the country's entire force, who complained of discrimination.

That triggered open rebellion and fighting between rival security forces which gave way to gang clashes that left 21 people dead.

Reinado has repeatedly called on Gusmao's rival Alkatiri to step down amid allegations that his ruling Fretilin party was providing arms to gangs that have been terrorizing Dili.

Alkatiri has denied the accusation, but peacekeepers have confiscated dozens of firearms from civilians and sporadic gunshots can be heard at night.

Political opponents also want to suspend a section of the constitution to give the charismatic Gusmao greater powers over Alkatiri.

The violence, according to President Xanana Gusmao, has "paralyzed" the tiny country that got its independence in 1999 when it voted to end a 24-year Indonesian occupation.

"The guns are actually spread all over Timor. The fact is, dealing with Major Reinado is a political step, but authorities must now move quickly to identify these groups, track down these arms," said Saldanha.

"That is the biggest step towards providing security and normalization," he said.

Political analyst Dionisio Babo at Timor's Universidade da Paz agrees that civilian armed groups are the "biggest threat to the stability of the country."

"They remain uncontrolled by the international forces. They are largely free and roaming around, hiding weapons. They provide a sense of instability," said Babo, a former director of the Asia Foundation.

"But I am still optimistic that this country will still progress. The reason for the upheaval is because of inexperience and immaturity of the leadership to make plans and to respond to critical issues," he said, noting that the demands of the sacked officers could have been resolved through dialogue.

Babo said the government must now restructure its security forces and push for a longer-term security engagement with the UN.

"I think East Timor will not be able to stand on its won in terms of defence and security for a couple of years to come," Babo said.

Colonel Nazri Cheelah, head of the Malaysian contingent helping to restore calm to Dili's streets said the security situation could be bubbling under the surface. "Under uncertain situations like this, if I were a rebel I wouldn't give up my arms."

"It is not easy to see what's happening. But there are guns for sure being smuggled by groups in the mountains," Cheelah said.

- AFP /ct

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