Fate of East Timor PM hangs in balance

East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, blamed by opponents for violence that gripped the tiny nation last month, huddled with senior members of his party as his fate hung in the balance on Thursday.

President Xanana Gusmao has told Alkatiri to step down or be sacked after seeing a documentary that purported to show evidence of the prime minister’s involvement in arming men tasked with killing his rivals.

The premier has repeatedly denied the allegations.

“There was a meeting today and we agreed that if Prime Minister Alkatiri steps down, the Cabinet should also be revamped,” said Martino Perreira, a member of the central committee of Alkatiri’s ruling Fretilin party.

“If Alkatiri steps down, the president can either name or appoint a replacement or [the central committee] can choose” and it can be approved by the president, he said.

Pereirra said the party would not support Foreign and Defence Minister Jose Ramos-Horta if he was named by Gusmao to lead a transitional government because “only a member of Fretilin’s central committee can replace the PM”.

The Nobel peace prize winner’s name has been floated as a potential successor to Alkatiri, who was expected to meet the president later on Thursday.

Alkatiri has been under pressure to quit since the impoverished country descended into violence a month ago, leading to the deaths of 21 people and the arrival of more than 2 200 foreign peacekeepers to restore calm.

His opponents and critics have charged that he failed to prevent the unrest and was also linked to the violence himself.

Gusmao wrote to Alkatiri on Tuesday demanding his resignation, saying he had lost confidence in him. The president said the documentary he saw made “serious accusations” that had shocked him.

“There is nothing left for me to do except give you the choice: either you resign, or, after hearing the State Council, I will fire you, because you no longer deserve my confidence,” Gusmao said.

Alkatiri’s sacked interior minister Rogerio Lobato, who stands accused of distributing the weapons at his premier’s request, was questioned on Thursday after a warrant was issued for his arrest earlier in the week.

Dili’s prosecutor-general Longuinhos Monteiro said Lobato was being charged with “distributing state weapons to civilians, attempted revolution, conspiracy, and action with criminals”.

He faces up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

But Monteiro said it was “too early” to know whether Alkatiri would also be charged. “I don’t see it now,” he told reporters.

UN officials are working with the prosecutor-general on a probe into the violence, which came after Alkatiri in March sacked about 600 soldiers who had complained of discrimination, triggering infighting among the security forces that spiralled into gang warfare.

Security remained tight around the capital, where Australian, New Zealand, Malaysian and Portuguese peacekeepers have taken over police functions.

Tanks patrolled the outskirts of Dili, while troops checked vehicles for any weapons that could be used to stir up trouble.

World Bank chief Paul Wolfowitz said separately on Thursday in a statement that East Timor faced a tough task recovering after the unrest and weeks of uncertainty.

“Now is a time to put aside partisan political interests—a time for Timor-Leste’s leaders at the national and community level to work together to heal society’s divisions and chart a way forward in the interests of the country as a whole,” he said.
- Sapa-AFP

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