East Timor: Rally calls for PM to step down

About 1 000 people in trucks and on motorcycles converged outside the offices of unpopular East Timorese Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri on Tuesday to demand his resignation.

More than 40 trucks carrying about 20 people each plus hundreds more on motorcycles reached the government offices on the Dili waterfront, escorted by a convoy of Malaysian peacekeeping troops.

“Bring down Alkatiri,” shouted protesters from trucks draped in banners, one saying, “Dissolve the government of Alkatiri.”

East Timor plunged into chaos when the premier in April fired 600 soldiers, nearly half the tiny nation’s army, after they complained of discrimination because they came from the country’s west.

“The eastern and western districts together bring down Alkatiri. If he doesn’t resign war will not end,” read a banner on another truck as it headed into the capital.

Twenty one people died last month as sporadic battles between rival soldiers unleashed a wave of lawlessness that descended into gang clashes and led the government to appeal for foreign help.

More than 2 000 combat-ready foreign peacekeepers, chiefly from Australia, are deployed in Dili.

Despite Alkatiri being largely blamed for the unrest, which continued on Tuesday with the burning of more buildings, the popular president of the tiny nation, Xanana Gusmao, has so far refused to sack his embattled prime minister.

“The most important thing is that Mari [Alkatiri] must resign and take responsibility for all that he has done,” Augusto Junior, one of the rally organisers, told Agence France-Presse.

After the rally reached the government offices its leader, Augusto Araujo Taro, met Gusmao in his office to explain the demonstrators’ demands.

Junior explained that the rally leader was a friend of Major Alfredo Reinado, who says he is in command of the 600 soldiers sacked by the prime minister last month.

Reinado is holed up in the mountain town of Maubisse, but has pledged his loyalty to Gusmao and says he will disarm when asked to by the international peacekeeping force.

When their meeting ended Gusmao came out and addressed the crowd for 13 minutes in a speech punctuated by applause, but which failed to address the issue of Alkatiri’s resignation.

“I have to tell you that I promise that starting this year the people need not suffer anymore,” Gusmao said, standing on top of a car.

At one point, a tear fell from the president’s left eye as he explained that what burdened him was the people with weapons that were terrorising the people, burning houses and stealing.

“We don’t want fear and panic in the night. We want no more of our children dying.
Because of that ... the biggest priority is to stop the violence. Stop bringing weapons, stop the shooting, stop the shooting in places where a lot of people live,” he said, calling the situation a crisis.

Gusmao said he had read a written statement delivered by the demonstrators in which they complained about Alkatiri and accused him of being responsible for various killings.

The statement asked him to dissolve Alkatiri’s government and Parliament.

He continued: “If we want to resolve a lot of problems we must do it one by one. Because of that I accept and I read [their statement] from beginning to end, and I want to tell you that I promise that, starting from this crisis, the people need not suffer anymore.”

After Gusmao spoke, Araujo headed back to his town of Ermera in the hills outside Dili and the crowd began to disperse.—AFP

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