Subject: AP: Hundreds of striking E Timor troops face dismissal

Also: More East Timorese soldiers desert: officer

Hundreds of striking East Timor troops face dismissal

DILI (AP): About 400 soldiers - a quarter of East Timor's 1,600-strong army - who staged a protest over poor conditions and selective promotions may face dismissal from the military, a top commander said Wednesday.

"As of today, the government will only pay the salaries of soldiers who are active in the military," said Col. Lere Anan Timor, deputy chief of the East Timor Defense Force.

The soldiers walked out of their barracks on Feb. 8 in a protest over working conditions and promotion rules. They delivered a petition to President Xanana Gusmao, who urged them to return to duty and promised a government inquiry into their complaints.

The defense force was formed six years ago, when the United Nations took over control of the nascent country following an independence referendum that ended Indonesia's 24-year presence.

Indonesia entered East Timor in 1975 after the country was abandoned by the Portuguese colonial administration.

The force currently consists of two light infantry battalions with plans for several more reserve units. It also has two large patrol boats supplied by Portugal.

The army - which was trained by Australian and Portuguese instructors - is designed to deal with border incursions from Indonesia or, in the case of another full-scale invasion, to slow down the attackers until outside help arrives.

Col. Timor said the soldiers were given a deadline to return by Wednesday to the army's main base at Metinaro. "We still consider them as soldiers, but if they do not return ... they are at risk of mass sacking," he said.

Most of the 400 soldiers involved in the protest are said to be former insurgents who fought against Indonesia. Timor himself is a guerrilla commander who began his military career in the Portuguese army as a colonial paratrooper.

Gastao Salsinha, a coordinator of the strike, denied reports the soldiers were rebelling against their commanders.

"We are striking because something is wrong ... in the process of recruitment and in the process of promotion. We also want good conditions and a good atmosphere to do our duty as soldiers," Salsinha said.

Jose Oliviera, a member of local human rights watchdog Yayasan Hak, said the problem was caused by the lack of transparency in military regulations.

-------------- Joyo Indonesia News Service --------------

More East Timorese soldiers desert: officer

Nearly 600 East Timorese soldiers have deserted their barracks this month in protest against alleged discrimination and over-zealous surveillance, an officer in the group says.

The officer, who declines to be named, says a batch of 177 soldiers last weekend joined an earlier 404 who initially left their barracks in Metinaro and Baucau on February 8.

The fledgling East Timorese Army has about 1,500 regular soldiers and 1,500 reservists.

The first batch took their grievances to President Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader.

They returned to their barracks but then deserted again shortly afterwards.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has threatened punishment for the deserters.

He has been quoted as saying many of soldiers are former resistance fighters unused to the discipline of a regular military force.

East Timorese guerrilla forces fought against Indonesia during their almost 24 years of occupation of the former Portuguese colony.

The country became the world's youngest nation in May 2002.

The officer says the action is not politically motivated.

"There was no political pressure from anyone," he said.

"It was purely because of the discrimination and the treatment we received from several of our commanders while we were in Metinaro."

He did not specify on what grounds they had been discriminated against.

The officer says the men will not return to their respective bases until their grievances are addressed.

"There (at the base) we are being treated like dangerous prisoners," he said.

"We are under constant observation from the armed security section."

He adds that even when they are eating or showering they are under watch.

Military commander Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak was last week quoted by the Suara Timor Lorosae newspaper as saying that the 404 deserters should consider themselves as discharged for disobeying orders to return to work.

Military officials are not immediately available for comment.


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