Subject: AFP: East Timor Rebel Looms Over Presidential Poll

Agence France-Presse

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

East Timor Rebel Looms Over Presidential Poll

DILI (AFP) - A fugitive East Timor rebel leader, who has eluded a manhunt by crack Australian troops, is at the centre of fears that unrest could mar the country's landmark presidential election next month.

The renegade soldier, Major Alfredo Reinado, has refused to surrender as the April 9 vote nears, casting a long shadow over impoverished East Timor's first presidential poll since it achieved independence in 2002.

"The population supports Major Alfredo and he is capable of prolonged resistance," says Jose Luis Oliveira, a local rights activist. "But if the Australians kill him, it could trigger civil war."

Reinado has been a persistent problem for East Timor's government and is said to have a band of armed followers, support from disaffected youth and the backing of an ethnic group living in the nation's west.

The fugitive was criticised for his role in unrest last year that killed at least 37 people, displaced 150,000 and led to the dispatch of Australian-led international peacekeepers.

Reinado has been on the run since the Australian troops attacked his mountain hideout earlier this month in a failed bid to capture him. Five of his armed supporters were killed during the offensive, which triggered rowdy protests.

The troops then launched a, so far, fruitless manhunt for the rebel, who for many young people in East Timor has come to symbolise their daily struggle against endemic unemployment and grinding poverty.

"Maybe it's politics that is the cause of our crisis, but also we don't have anything. There's no work, not enough food -- that's why young people are in the streets," school teacher Maria da Silva Benfica said in Dili, the capital.

East Timor endured a violent transition to freedom after 24 years of occupation by nearby Indonesia ended in 1999. Most of the population was displaced and the majority of its infrastructure destroyed.

The UN has tried to help rebuild the country, but unrest continues to pulse through the fledgling nation, a former Portuguese colony.

"There are rhythms of violence here that are inscrutable. The place can go to hell one day and right itself the next," said a commentator who works for an international organisation, but wished to remain anonymous.

The unrest scarring East Timor has complex causes and is not down to just one man, according to Rebecca Engel, an academic researcher working for a local non-governmental organisation.

"You can't attribute the violence to any one thing -- but people know they can get away with it," she said.

There was a need for "respectful engagement, communication and information exchange" with the country's citizens, she said, and its problems needed a more coherent response from local leaders and the international community.

The eight candidates contesting East Timor's presidential poll have already signed a code of conduct designed to ensure the vote is fair and peaceful.

East Timor's Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, considered the favourite to win, has played down Reinado's ability to disrupt the poll and said that he must give up his weapons.

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

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