Troops sent to East Timor as tension increases

Foreign troops flew into East Timor last night to prevent the collapse of the fragile nation as gun battles raged near the President's office, leaving at least nine dead and 27 wounded.

In the deadliest of several incidents that broke out in the capital, Dili, yesterday, the army fired on unarmed police officers as they were escorted from their headquarters under the terms of a ceasefire which ended an attack on the building by Timorese soldiers.

Stephane Dujarric, a UN spokesman in New York, said the injured included two UN police advisers.

The ceasefire had been negotiated by UN police and military advisers and allowed the police officers to surrender their weapons and leave the headquarters unarmed. After the shooting incident, 62 others were rescued and given shelter in the UN compound.

Concern for the stability of the young independent state of East Timor, still mired in poverty, rose earlier in the week when clashes first broke out between ex-soldiers and government troops after the sacking of almost half of the army.

Many of the 600 troops, who were sacked in March because they went absent without leave over working conditions and alleged discrimination, are veterans of the 25-year fight for independence from Indonesia. They had threatened guerrilla warfare unless they were reinstated.

Australia announced yesterday it would dispatch 1,300 soldiers to East Timor, and an advance party of 150 began securing Dili's airport yesterday. Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal also decided to send troops.

Indonesia annexed the mainly Roman Catholic former Portuguese colony in 1976, a year after invading the territory, and left amid bloodshed provoked by pro-Jakarta militias after a UN-organised referendum on independence in 1999. The UN then administered the territory for three years before handing over to the government of President Xanana Gusmao, a former resistance fighter who spent years in prison.

The UN Security Council met in urgent session last night and was expected to issue a statement agreed by all 15 members, endorsing President Gusmao's call for international peacekeepers.

UN diplomats were frustrated that the council had failed to issue a formal response on Wednesday, as Russia had sought more time over it. "We made this place," one said, referring to the UN's historical responsibility for East Timor.

It was not clear whether the violence signalled the beginning of civil war or would remain isolated incidents caused by the disgruntled soldiers, who began rioting this week. About 1,500 people have sought refuge in the UN compound, while others have headed for the airport.

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, said he was confident that calm would return once the foreign peacekeepers were deployed in full. New Zealand said it was sending 60 police and soldiers, while Malaysia pledged 500 and Portugal announced it would send 120.

Kofi Annan, the UN secretary general, who is in Asia, spoke by telephone to Mr Gusmao and East Timor's Prime Minister, Mari Alkatiri, as well as regional leaders. He is expected to send an envoy.