East Timor on brink of civil war after atrocities

Peacekeeping troops were struggling to stave off civil war in East Timor yesterday, where the death toll climbed to 23 after soldiers gunned down unarmed police in the capital and a mob torched a house filled with children.

Members of the tiny country's 800-member army attacked the national police headquarters on Thursday, accusing police of allying themselves with a large band of dismissed soldiers who have engaged in street battles with the military in Dili.

After an hour, UN police and military advisers negotiated a ceasefire under which the police were to surrender their weapons and leave the building. But as the unarmed police were being escorted out, soldiers opened fire on them, killing 10 and wounding 26 others, according to the UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric and a local hospital director, who said one died of his injuries overnight.

The unrest in East Timor is the most serious threat to the desperately poor country since it won independence from Indonesia in 1999. The attack on policemen illustrates the dangers facing peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia, the first of whom arrived on Thursday.

The United Nations, which spent millions of dollars training East Timor's army and setting up the country, urged the government to take "all necessary steps" to end the violence, which has been fuelled by simmering tensions in a nation divided along east-west lines.

Residents described how, in one of the most grisly attacks, a mob came to their district on Thursday, smashing windows and setting fire to houses, one of which belonged to the Home Security Minister, Rogerio Lobato, though he was not inside at the time. Six of Mr Lobato's relatives were killed, including two young children and three teenagers, the Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, said in a television address. Their charred bodies were scattered across the living-room, bedroom and bathroom.