Subject: AU: Friendly fire in tense Dili

The Australian Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Friendly fire in tense Dili

Stephen Fitzpatrick, Dili

INVESTIGATIONS are under way after members of the Australian-led military stabilisation force in East Timor and Timorese soldiers accidentally exchanged fire during an altercation in the capital, Dili, as tensions rose ahead of legislative elections on Saturday.

The international soldiers, believing they were being attacked after hearing shots from East Timorese soldiers also trying to control a rock-throwing crowd on Sunday night, let loose a number of warning rounds.

"It was both the ISF (International Stabilisation Force) and F-FDTL (East Timorese military) doing their normal legitimate jobs, but due to the disturbance of a large crowd and the static positioning of the two units, the incident occurred," military spokesman Squadron Leader Ivan Benitez-Aguirre said.

"Basically they came from one end and we came from the other, and shots were fired."

Separate investigations are being carried out by the Australian and Timorese militaries, and by East Timor's UN police force.

The incident came as Prime Minister Estanislau da Silva handed down a long-awaited report on flaws besetting the country's military, after internal fighting last year between the armed forces and police.

The study, by a senior group of politicians, civilians and military figures known as the Commission of Notables, was launched last year to address the crisis posed by a group of around 600 soldiers who had gone on strike. The group, referred to as "the petitioners" for their complaints over poor pay and ethnic-based discrimination, was eventually sacked as the crisis erupted in full-scale violence, with dozens killed.

The report recommends salary increases, better training and clearly defined promotion criteria -- all issues on the petitioners' agenda.

Aimed squarely at improving discipline levels in the F-FDTL, it is separate to a speculative defence white paper released late last year, which proposed attack helicopters and a missile-equipped naval fleet. Those proposals are understood to have generally been dropped.

Mr da Silva warned that the petitioners' issues should not be confused with those of rebel former military policeman Alfredo Alves Reinado, whom the Australian-led military have been hunting for several months.

The hunt was called off last week on condition that dialogue with the renegade begin. Major Reinado has so far not begun talks, citing safety concerns.

The man Major Reinado has blamed for his troubles, former president Xanana Gusmao, yesterday hosted the final rally for his political party, CNRT, ahead of Saturday's election.

Mr Gusmao, who hopes to be prime minister if his party wins, is relying on the country's 520,000 voters to remember him as a hero of the 24-year anti-Indonesian resistance.

His chief opponent will be former prime minister Mari Alkatiri, who yesterday celebrated the anniversary of his ouster by opening bottles of champagne.

He said he would accept the result if Fretilin lost on Saturday -- a likely result, after his party's poor showing against Nobel Peace Prize laureate Jose Ramos Horta in April presidential polls.

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