Australian troops on standby as violence erupts in East Timor

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The Independent Online

Just days after East Timor celebrated its fourth anniversary of independence violence flared, with one killed and seven wounded in gun battles between soldiers and former members of the security forces.

East Timor, which was ruled by Indonesia for 24 years, has been plagued by unrest. Five people died last month when a protest by former soldiers in the capital, Dili, turned into a riot. Cars were torched and more than 100 homes and businesses destroyed, with government offices among the buildings attacked.

The trouble was sparked by the dismissal of nearly 600 soldiers ­ one-third of the army ­ who had gone on strike, complaining of discrimination and poor working conditions. At rallies in Dili, they were joined by protesters with broader grievances. Post-independence euphoria has given way to anger and disillusion, with the nation still mired in grinding poverty.

The former soldiers are camped out in the hills surrounding Dili, where their numbers have been bolstered by renegade military police.

Yesterday, some of them descended to the city outskirts where, according to the government, they opened fire on unarmed regular troops, ambushing them twice in the eastern district of Becora.

Troops and police tried to apprehend the gunmen and, in the ensuing clashes, one soldier was killed, and five soldiers and a policeman were injured. One former solider was badly hurt.

A government commission has been established to examine the former soldiers' claim that they were passed over for promotions because they came from the west of the country, while the military leadership originated in the east.

Tens of thousands of people fled Dili last month, fearing further violence after the riots, during which security forces fired into the crowd. Many residents have yet to return.

Many East Timorese are unhappy with the government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, which they say has failed to deliver jobs and better living standards. Mr Alkatiri survived an attempt to unseat him last week during a meeting of the ruling Fretilin party.

Australia is concerned about its northern neighbour. The Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, told parliament yesterday it was "ready to offer assistance to East Timor if it's needed". He said the latest reports suggested that parts of the country were "descending into violence" .

Australian troops are ready to intervene but Canberra will not pressure Dili to accept help, the Prime Minister, John Howard said. He commented yesterday that he did not have immediate fears for the 620 Australians known to be in East Timor

Mr Howard ruled out asking East Timor or the UN for an invitation to send troops. He said: "I think that is the wrong way to go about it; let's respect East Timor's independence."

"We are able to respond if we are asked, but you wait until you are asked; you don't run around soliciting invitations," he added.

New Zealand also said it was on standby to send troops to East Timor if it was needed or asked.

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