Subject: East Timor president's attackers escape siege-army

Thu Mar 13, 2008 2:12am EDT

By Tito Bello

DILI (Reuters) - Rebel soldiers blamed for last month's attacks on East Timor's president and prime minister have escaped a siege by security forces, the military said on Thursday.

Hundreds of joint security forces had surrounded the rebels for several days in the jungle in Ermera district, 75 km (47 miles) west of the capital, Dili, but they refused to surrender, operations commander Major Virgilio dos Anjos Ular said.

"They could have been killed if we had wanted to kill them yesterday, but we changed our mind and just called on them to give up," he told Reuters by telephone.

He said some residents had helped the rebels, led by renegade army lieutenant Gastao Salsinha, move to another place late on Wednesday.

Dos Anjos Ular said the operation was continuing and urged the people to encourage Salsinha and his rebels to turn themselves in to prevent bloodshed.

Rebels attacked the home of President Jose Ramos-Horta on February 11, seriously wounding him during a gunfight. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao escaped unhurt in a separate attack the same morning.

Ramos-Horta, recovering in a hospital in northern Australia, has named the gunman who shot and nearly killed him, an Australian newspaper reported.

The gunman was one of 600 rebel soldiers sacked after going on strike in 2006, the Age newspaper said, quoting Ramos-Horta's brother.

Another senior rebel soldier accused of involvement in the attack surrendered earlier this month and authorities had expressed confidence that the remaining rebels would give themselves up.

East Timor, Asia's youngest nation has been unable to achieve stability since hard-won independence in 2002.

The army tore apart along regional lines in 2006, when about 600 soldiers were sacked, triggering factional violence that killed 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes.

Foreign troops were sent to restore order in the former Portuguese colony of about one million people, which gained full independence from Indonesia after a U.N.-sponsored vote in 1999 that was marred by violence.

Following the February assaults, Prime Minister Gusmao ordered the military and police to form a joint command to arrest followers of rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, who was killed in the raid against Ramos-Horta.

(Writing by Ahmad Pathoni; Editing by Ed Davies and Sanjeev Miglani)

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