Subject: AFP: Leadership challenge for Timor PM


Leadership challenge for Timor PM

By Nelson da Cruz


EAST Timor's ruling Fretilin party began its three-day congress today, with the prime minister failing to address an expected leadership challenge sparked by deadly unrest last month.

About 50 armed police guarded the sports complex in Dili, capital of the world's youngest nation, where the meeting was taking place.

In his speech Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri avoided mentioning the government's much-criticised handling of a riot last month which left at least five people dead, and the possibility that he might be ousted as party secretary-general.

Instead he called on the East Timorese to fight poverty.

"I ask all the people, the government, the community, non-government groups, and the church to help end poverty, and improve education, health, the economy and development," Mr Alkatiri told the congress.

"I think even the petitioners (sacked soldiers) who went to the mountains are still waiting for the outcome of the Fretilin congress and are ready to negotiate with a new Fretilin. We have already had some preliminary contacts," he told AFP before the conference.

The April 28 riot was the worst unrest to hit Asia's poorest nation since it voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999.

Mr Ximenes said Alkatiri enjoys only about 20 percent support within the party so would not withstand a planned leadership challenge expected on Friday.

As secretary-general, Mr Alkatiri is facing a challenge from the country's ambassador to the United Nations, Jose Luis Guterres, while Fretilin president Francisco Lu Olo will be challenged by Ecidio de Jesus, a regional secretary.

Mr Alkatiri said last week he would step down as prime minister on Saturday if he was not re-elected.

However some predict he may survive the challenge.

"The delegates from the districts, especially from the east, still provide strong support for him," said Virgilio Guterres, director of the state broadcaster.

Persistent rumours of more violence ­ which spread quickly via mobile phone text messages ­ leave the situation unpredictable.

"The situation is still very tense," said Martinho Gusmao da Silva, from the Catholic Church's peace and justice commission.

A group of more than 100 soldiers remained in the hills outside Dili, prompting rumours that they might launch an attack, he said.

The state broadcaster's Guterres however said he doubted these troops would instigate any kind of violence, as they and their leader Gastao Salsinha promised not to do so in an interview broadcast on Monday.

However, he warned that fighting could break out among unarmed and disenchanted youths at any time.

"Violence using stones, hands ­ it can take place any time," he said.

Mr Alkatiri's challenger Jose Luis Guterres told AFP on the sidelines of the conference that he did not believe East Timor would need peacekeepers.

"I believe the East Timorese are still capable of solving this problem... Peacekeeping troops are not needed, we only need assistance from police officers," Mr Guterres said, referring to a request already made for international police to assist ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007.

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