Subject: UNWire: Most Serious Riots Since Independence Hit Dili

EAST TIMOR: Most Serious Riots Since Independence Hit Dili

U.N. peacekeepers were mobilized today to help East Timorese authorities deal with the most serious violence to hit the country since independence was declared in May. As many as five protesters were killed in the Timorese capital of Dili following clashes between students and police near key buildings in the city.

A witness of the riots told Reuters that at least five people were killed in the clashes, while several more, including a senior parliamentarian, were wounded, some apparently showing signs of gunshot wounds. Reuters reports that today's clashes, which follow a clash involving students and police in Dili yesterday, began when shots were fired by unknown sources into a crowd of protestors demonstrating in front of police headquarters for the release of an arrested student. The protest then moved to the nearby National Parliament building, where shots were also fired (Lirio Da Fonseca, Reuters, Dec. 4).

According to LUSA Agencia de Noticias, about 50 students invaded the governmental palace, where Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri was meeting with a Portuguese ministerial delegation, but they quickly withdrew (LUSA, Dec. 4, UN Wire translation). During the violence today, many vehicles and buildings were burned, including Alkatiri's residence, Dili's mosque and the largest supermarket in the city (LUSA II, Dec. 4, UN Wire translation). According to Reuters, at least one U.N. vehicle was also burned (Da Fonseca, Reuters).

Situation Reportedly Under Control

LUSA reports that calm has begun to return to the capital, but the situation remains tense in the city's streets, which are under heavy police and military guard (LUSA II). Speaking at a press conference following the riots today, Alkatiri denied that the government had declared a state of emergency or a curfew, but called on the population to remain inside their houses (LUSA III, Dec. 4, UN Wire translation). Alkatiri also insisted that neither the government nor the United Nations gave orders for security forces to fire on demonstrators.

He promised a rapid investigation to find those responsible for the incidents and said he was "deeply saddened" by today's events, which he said is going to dissuade foreign investment and therefore make "more difficulties for the Timorese people," who live in one of Asia's poorest countries.

"I am appealing on political party leaders to think about the country," he said. "What has been burned is the prestige of the country and the dignity of the people," he added (LUSA IV, UN Wire translation).

Ramos Horta Calls For "Freeze" In Peacekeeper Reduction

The recent violence in the country should serve as a warning to the international community to hold back on plans to further cut the U.N. police and peacekeeping presence in the country, said East Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta from Madrid, canceling travel plans to Mexico and saying he will return immediately to East Timor.

"Today's events should constitute an alert for the need of continued (international) aid for the consolidation of peace and stability" in East Timor, he said. The United Nations has proposed that peacekeepers be withdrawn gradually until January 2004, when Timorese defense and police forces are expected to take over full responsibility for the country's security (LUSA V, Dec. 4).

A U.N. spokesman, meanwhile, said that the recent violence was just a "bump in the road" on East Timor's transition to a peaceful democracy. "I really don't want to speculate" on what has led to this violence, Brennon Jones said. "It's a young government, it's a young police force, it's a young administration and we hope that things can return to normal quickly."

Noting meetings being held today between senior government and U.N. representatives, he added, "There are serious talks going on to try and resolve this bump in the road" (Emilio San Pedro, BBC World Update, Dec. 4, Note: You may have to download free software to access this audio link).

Timorese Blame Agitators, Radical Group For Violence

According to Ramos Horta, former members of pro-Indonesian militia may be behind today's riots, TSF Online reports. "There are elements behind the events, among the demonstrators, that are supposedly linked to ex-militia groups, who have tried to take advantage [of the situation] to cause disturbances," he said (TSF Online, Dec. 4, UN Wire translation).

Some government officials blamed the Conselho Popular pela Defesa de Republica Democratica de Timor Leste for being behind the riots. The CPD-RDTL has been blamed in the past for several violent incidents in East Timor, including a supposed assassination attempt on Timorese President Xanana Gusmao.

"This is an orchestrated maneuver to topple the government," said Minister of Internal Affairs Rogerio Lobato (Agence France-Presse/Yahoo! News, Dec. 4).

However, according to Joao Noronha, a journalist with the local Correio de Timor, the violence may be linked to Gusmao's call last week for the resignation of Lobato for incompetence following attacks on a police station in the town of Baucau by an armed group of 400 men last month (Sandra Cunha, TSF Online, Dec. 4, UN Wire translation).

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