- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

DILI, East Timor — East Timor’s prime minister bowed to mounting pressure and resigned yesterday, setting off raucous celebrations and raising hopes for an end to months of political paralysis and violence in Asia’s newest nation.

Mari Alkatiri, who is battling accusations that he formed a hit squad to silence opponents, offered to help form an interim government until elections next year, and the ruling Fretilin party put forward four names as possible successors.

“I am ready to resign,” Mr. Alkatiri said on the porch of his home in Dili, explaining he wanted to share responsibility for the crisis and to head off the resignation of President Xanana Gusmao, who threatened to step down if the prime minister did not.

Mr. Gusmao, who is revered for leading the armed resistance to Indonesian rule, accepted the resignation effective immediately and said deliberations would begin today on forming a new government.

As news of Mr. Alkatiri’s decision spread, thousands of people drove through the main streets of the capital, banging drums and cans. At the waterfront site where they had rallied daily for nearly a week, young men danced in the street.

Jose Ramos-Horta, one of the country’s most senior politicians and seen as a possible candidate for interim prime minister, praised the crowd for their discipline.

“You all have won a very big victory as a result of your discipline,” said Mr. Ramos-Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent struggle against Indonesian rule. “By tomorrow or in the coming days, we will have a new government.”

Mr. Alkatiri denies knowing anything about the purported hit squads, but a close ally, former Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato, is facing charges for purportedly arming civilian militias at his request. The charges are being investigated by police and United Nations-funded prosecutors.

Many Timorese say Mr. Alkatiri’s dismissal of 600 disgruntled soldiers in March was to blame for street battles and gang warfare that killed at least 30 persons and forced nearly 150,000 others to flee their homes before Australian-led peacekeeping troops intervened last month.

It was the worst bloodshed since the Timorese voted for independence seven years ago in a U.N.-administered referendum, touching off a rampage by Indonesian soldiers and supporters of continued rule by Jakarta.

Late yesterday, a team of U.N. specialists arrived to plan for further support from the world body.

Analysts said Mr. Alkatiri’s resignation could be the “circuit breaker” needed to calm East Timor, though much depended on his replacement and whether the Fretilin party could mend internal divisions hardened by weeks of turmoil.

The new government must quickly address splits in the security forces, fully investigate killings and pave the way for the return of residents living in camps, said Bob Lowry, an Australian specialist on East Timor.

Many of the protesters demanded Mr. Alkatiri play no further role in politics. He spent much of the Indonesian occupation in exile, and he is a Muslim in a predominantly Roman Catholic country.

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