- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 28, 2006

DILI, East Timor — Tens of thousands of East Timorese fled their burning capital or sought refuge in churches, embassies and the airport yesterday as gangs terrorized neighborhoods virtually at will. The United Nations evacuated hundreds of employees.

Foreign peacekeepers dispersed some militants, but they quickly regrouped. The U.N. special representative in Dili said more international peacekeepers may be needed to restore order in the capital.

A week of bloodshed has killed at least 27 persons, raising concerns that one of the world’s youngest nations is plunging into a civil war.

A Cabinet meeting was scheduled today amid speculation that the government may collapse soon or that parliament will be dissolved. Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said the violence was an attempt to overthrow him.

Yesterday, rival gangs torched houses and battled with machetes for a third straight day, as fires filled the sky with dark clouds of smoke.

About 27,000 East Timorese have sought refuge at Dili’s airport, seaport, religious buildings and U.N. shelters, said Robert Ashe, a regional representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

But conditions at the tent camps were dire, with almost no sanitation. Children splashed in puddles polluted by human waste, and many people had no access to food and drinking water.

Four persons were killed yesterday. One was burned while trying to defend his home and the others were shot, witnesses and hospital officials said.

A mob severely beat a man they accused of hiding guns. Foreign reporters intervened, and he was rushed bleeding to the hospital.

The United States, Japan, Australia and other nations pulled out non-emergency staff. More than 60 Filipinos were evacuated on a Philippine air force plane, and China today planned to fly out nearly 200 of its citizens who had sought safety at its embassy.

The U.N. special representative to East Timor, Sukehiro Hasegawa, said goodbye to about 300 staff members being evacuated to Australia. He said more peacekeepers may be needed to end the lawlessness, and he appealed to local politicians not to fan the flames of hatred.

“They have a difference of views in how to manage the country, and the [situation] is very, very fragile,” he said.

Australian troops rumbled toward the sound of gunfire in armored personnel carriers yesterday but seemed to scatter combatants only briefly.

About 2,000 Australian troops were either on the ground or in transit to East Timor, the Defense Department said. An additional 50 Australian police were promised to help contain the gangs.

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