- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2007

MELBOURNE, Australia — Australian troops continued their search for a renegade army major in East Timor yesterday, a day after a failed attempt to capture him sparked riots in the streets of Dili, the capital.

Witnesses said roadblocks had been removed and order restored in Dili, but day-old instructions for a voluntary departure of dependents and non-essential embassy staff from East Timor remained in effect.

“Those evacuations are precautionary. I don’t hold deep fears, but I do hold some concerns,” said Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who argued it would be unfair and superficial to say the military fiasco reflected poorly on the Australian military efforts to maintain peace in the tiny Pacific nation.

The unrest was triggered when Australian troops tried unsuccessfully to capture Alfredo Reinado, a renegade Timorese army major. Four of his followers died in a shootout that brought gangs of youths into the streets, hurling stones at the Australians and blocking the roads with burning tires.

No further incidents of unrest were reported yesterday, but Mr. Howard approved the voluntary departures as a precautionary measure. New Zealand and British authorities issued similar advice to their nationals on Monday.

“The situation is getting normal. Government vehicles have cleared the locations [of roadblocks],” Reuters news agency quoted a witness in Dili as saying.

East Timor, Asia’s newest nation, has a troubled history since winning independence from Indonesia in 1999. High unemployment and political squabbling culminated in a crisis last year when Maj. Reinado led a mass desertion from the army, which resulted in clashes between soldiers and police.

An Australia-led U.N. peacekeeping force restored order only after 37 persons had died in the violence and more than 150,000 others had been forced to flee their homes. There are still about 1,550 U.N. peacekeepers there, and an additional 150 Portuguese military and police personnel are scheduled to arrive this week.

East Timor President Xanana Gusmao has threatened to declare a state of emergency if there is an escalation of the current outbreak of violence. He also vowed to use all legal means to pursue the rebel leader in a radio address.

Maj. Reinado is now reported to be hiding out in rugged mountain country after slipping through the cordon the Australians had established around his compound in the town of Same, south of Dili.

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