East Timor's President, a former guerrilla leader and independence hero, yesterday announced emergency measures after mobs ransacked the attorney general's office, stealing evidence implicating those accused of massacres in 1999.
The statement by President Xanana Gusmao also represented an attempt to break a political deadlock that has paralysed his government and possibly triggered some of the unrest.
It followed two days of wrangling with Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who faces calls for his resignation but retains clout as the leader of the ruling party. Mr Gusmao has a partly ceremonial role but inspires adulation for his record in the fight against Indonesia's occupation of his homeland.
So far, he has stayed out of the bruising game of daily politics, preferring a loftier role as a symbol of new nationhood.
Seated in his office, Mr Gusmao declared to journalists that he would assume "sole responsibility" for security, taking direct control of the armed forces and key ministries. He urged lawmakers to meet soon to discuss a solution to "a state of grave crisis". The government is scarcely functioning.
Loyalist soldiers are confined to their barracks, a group of renegade soldiers is ensconced in the hills near Dili, the police force is in disarray, most government offices are closed, and many lawmakers have fled the capital along with one-fifth of the city's population.
Peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia have seized up to 400 weapons. But they have yet to stop the gangs terrorising the seaside capital and there are fears that a humanitarian crisis looms as locals riot for food.
At least 27 people have died since last week.