East Timor political solution may take weeks

A political solution to the violence in East Timor could take weeks to be hammered out, Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta warned on Monday as the United Nations readied an aid appeal for the tiny nation.

The four-year-old country descended into bloody chaos last month after Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri sacked 600 soldiers from the west who had complained of discrimination in the ranks.

Fighting between rival soldiers and soldiers and police disintegrated into street violence involving rival gangs, and officials said 21 people were killed as gangs looted, vandalised and torched houses in Dili.

“As far as a political solution [is concerned], that would take a few more days or even weeks before there is an absolute clarity of what direction this country is taking,” Ramos-Horta said without elaborating.

The government of Asia’s youngest and poorest nation has called in more than 2 200 foreign troops to help, most of them Australian. Dili appeared calm on Monday.

Ramos-Horta was speaking as he toured a refugee camp at a convent where 14 000 people—among an estimated 100 000 who have fled their homes—are staying.

The unrest has exposed a rift between respected President Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader in the fight for independence from Indonesia, and Alkatiri, who has been widely blamed for the violence.

The prime minister has hinted that Gusmao, a political rival, had used the violence to try to push him out of power.

The rebels and other political opponents of the prime minister are to launch talks this week aimed at coming up with a formula for modifying the Constitution to give the popular Gusmao greater powers.

UN Humanitarian Coordinator in East Timor Fien Riske-Nielson said the world body would issue a “flash appeal” later on Monday at its New York headquarters for more aid and to raise as much as $18-million needed to sustain operations here for three months.

He said he expected “a positive response to the appeal.”

Riske-Nielson also said the number of internally-displaced persons who fled their homes after violence last month was now estimated at 100 000, scattered in various camps around the capital Dili and nearby districts.

“We are planning to do an assessment again in the coming days because there are indications that the number could be increasing outside Dili,” he said as he toured the same refugee camp.

Riske-Nielson said the figure may keep climbing as long as the crisis remained unresolved, though he did not give any direct reason for more people seeking refuge outside the capital. Most violence has been confined to Dili.

The humanitarian situation remained “precarious” because even if the situation was under control for the time being, the overcrowding in camps could lead to outbreaks of disease, he said.

“The situation in the camps is very difficult,” he said.
“People aren’t going home because they are afraid.”

The UN’s refugee agency said about 150 000 tonnes of relief supplies were to arrive later on Monday from Australia.

The cargo was airlifed from the agency’s warehouse in Jordan last week and includes lightweight family tents, plastic sheets, jerry cans and kitchen sets. - Sapa-AFP

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