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As East Timor crisis mounts, residents flee neighborhoods

Clashes leave houses looted and burned

DILI, East Timor -- Leonardo do Santos hastily nailed a sheet of rusty roofing across his front door yesterday and ran with his wife, as his neighbors rushed into the street clutching knives, rocks, metal bars, slingshots, and garden tools to fight a rival gang.

Clashes in East Timor's capital have left rows of small, brightly painted stone houses looted, burned, and abandoned. Violence decreased somewhat after foreign peacekeepers arrived more than a week ago, yet more than half the city's 150,000 residents have fled their homes and now live in crowded camps facing food and water shortages.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri announced yesterday that Parliament would convene today to address East Timor's turmoil, an attempt to revive the workings of a government paralyzed by factional rifts and security concerns.

Yet lawmakers are believed to be among those fleeing the capital, and the prime minister acknowledged that some might not show up for work. Alkatiri also faces calls for his ouster by those blaming him for the crisis, sparked by his firing of 600 disgruntled soldiers from the 1,400-strong army.

Nearly seven years after East Timor broke from former occupier Indonesia following a drawn-out independence struggle, the new state is trying to stave off civil war.

Violence erupted April 28 when a demonstration by the dismissed soldiers escalated into riots that left at least five dead. The soldiers, who claim the army opened fire on unarmed civilians, fled to the hills surrounding the seaside capital and are demanding Alkatiri's resignation.

Before they were fired, the soldiers were on strike, claiming the government discriminated against them because they came from the west of the country, which is perceived to be more sympathetic to Indonesia.

The spiraling unrest has revealed and deepened a similar rift among ordinary citizens seen as ``western" or ``eastern," with attacks and counterattacks that feed hatred and distrust among longtime friends and neighbors.

East Timor's police has been confined to barracks because of its involvement in fighting between the army and ousted soldiers. The court system is not operating, and a mob sacked the office of the attorney general last week.

Without a functioning legal or law enforcement system, entire neighborhoods are abandoned to gangs hunting down opponents as they play cat-and-mouse with some 2,000 peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia.

The do Santos family, including four children, sleeps outdoors at a nearby shelter but returned to its home Sunday to collect a few valued possessions.

Only because they were accepted by the ``westerners" who now dominate the neighborhood were they able to walk freely down the street.

``All my clothes are gone, taken by the looters," do Santos said, sifting through broken furniture and sweeping shattered glass from the floor.

Within minutes they heard a clang of rocks against metal lampposts on the street -- an urgent signal known around the city meaning the enemy is near, so hide, run or come out and fight.

In this case, it announced the arrival of ``easterners" wielding machetes and clubs.

The do Santos family fled, as men and boys ran out of nearby houses and into the street with their weapons.

Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson warned Asian and Pacific countries of the dangers of allowing East Timor to become a failed state.

``We cannot afford to have Timor-Leste become one of those, and in doing so become a haven, perhaps, for transnational crime, for terrorism, and indeed humanitarian disasters and injustice," Nelson said at a regional security conference in Singapore.

Yet there were limits to what peacekeepers could do.

In Dili, Malaysian soldiers kicked down doors in search of arson suspects. Minutes after the troops left, a gang set fire to an adjacent row of houses.

Portuguese paramilitary police drove into Dili in a convoy of buses late yesterday. Some residents greeted them with cheers and flowers.

Peacekeepers have confiscated hundreds of weapons and temporarily detained gang members. They have refrained from firing weapons and have often driven past scenes of looting or vandalism.

``If they come, it's OK," resident Zeca Godinho said of the peacekeepers as a building burned nearby. ``But then they leave, and it starts again."

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