Trouble in Timor


Monday, May. 29, 2006

Trouble in Timor

The world’s youngest nation is engulfed in a bloody civil conflict that has its soldiers fighting one another. Can foreign troops restore peace?

Abile Mosoco likes to drink coffee while he’s fighting. Sip, snipe, sip, snipe. Sometimes the rebel commander reaches for the .22 Magnum rifle with telescopic sight that lies next to him as he sits behind a low masonry wall. Or he unslings the advanced Steyr automatic rifle from his shoulder and just blasts away. His targets scurry 200 m belowregular soldiers from the F.D.T.L., the East Timorese army. Every so often a bullet whines overhead, but from his hillside position on the edge of a small plateau near the capital Dili’s television tower, Mosoco is a difficult target. “He has killed five or six,” says one of his men, who are a mixture of unemployed youngsters and police officers. The police are well armed and in uniform, but the youths carry only knives, slingshot darts and the occasional Glock semiautomatic pistol. Each time Mosoco shoots, the young men murmur in satisfaction.

Mosoco’s victims will be added to some two dozen killed in violence last week stemming from the dismissal in March of almost half the East Timor defense force. The 600 soldiers, mostly originating from the western part of the country, had been on strike, claiming they had been passed over for promotion and accused of not providing enough resistance to Indonesia’s brutal 24-year occupation of the former Portuguese colony, which ended in 1999. For four days in late April they demonstrated in Dili; on April 28 Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri ordered the army to break up the protest, which it did with stunning brutality, leaving at least five dead and many more wounded. That worsened long-standing regional tensions within the army and police, triggering open rebellion.

By May 24, security had collapsed so completely that Foreign Minister Jos Ramos-Horta went on Australian TV, asking for troops “to prevent the country sliding into further chaos.” Australia began to land forces by the end of last week. The fresh need for foreign troops just a year after the departure of the last international peacekeepers raises doubts about the long-term prospects of the world’s youngest nation. East Timor suffers not just from ethnic violence but from chronic crime, severe poverty and unemployment. “The way in which the country has been governed in the last few years has left a lot to be desired,” said Australian Prime Minister John Howard. “They got their independence perhaps earlier than they were ready.”

The split within the army and police deepened on May 22, when rebel soldiers in the hills above Dili were joined by the head of the military police Lieutenant Commander Alfredo Reinado and 28 of his men. Reinado told TIME that he had been disgusted by the deadly force employed in quelling the April protests. “They were using grenade launchers against the riot,” he says. “I can’t believe it.” But Reinado’s decision took the fighting to a new and bloodier level. Some 20,000 residents fled Dili, fearing a repeat of the carnage that left 1,500 dead following East Timor’s vote for independence seven years ago. The rebels refused government demands to surrender, calling instead for the army itself to disarm, and for an investigation into their grievances. As street gangs fought running battles over east-west regional rivalries through the suburbs of Becora and Fatuahi, the rebels launched attacks against the military headquarters at Tasi Tolu, 6 km west of Dili. The civilian government seemed paralyzed, with rumors of dissension between the unpopular Alkatiri and President Xanana Gusmo, a resistance hero.

In the near-total absence of law and order, even military honor has been rendered meaningless. On the morning of May 25, regular army soldiers fired upon the police barracks in Dili for an hour or more, apparently in retaliation for what may have been an accidental shot from a policeman earlier in the day. The head of the U.N. mission in Dili, Sukehiro Hasegawa, says U.N. advisers negotiated a halt to the shooting, and the army commander promised the policemen would not be harmed if they surrendered. “We then took these unarmed officers out of the compound and we moved on to the street,” he told Australia’s ABC radio. “Most unfortunately, about 200 m from the police headquarters there were three or four soldiers, and one of them started firing at this group of unarmed police officers.” About 12 policemen died; more than 20 others were wounded, along with two U.N. police advisers.

With its own security forces firing on one another, the Timorese government formally requested an international intervention force be sent to help restore order, including troops from New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal as well as Australia. By the end of the week, 150 Australian special-forces commandos, the vanguard of a 1,300-man deployment, had secured the Dili airstrip and occupied the police barracks in the city center; two Australian Navy ships lay at anchor in the harbor. But gangs of youths still rampaged through the streets, and, said officials of the relief group World Vision International, threatened to attack compounds housing refugees who had fled the fighting. On Saturday young men armed with machetes torched dozens of homes in Dili, causing women and children to flee screaming. Describing the local police as “ineffective,” Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the full deployment of troops would be accelerated.

Yet Australia’s long-term mission in East Timor remains unclear, as do the rebels’ demands. Over coffee at his base in the old Portuguese pousada in the beautiful mountain village of Maubisse, 45 km from the capital, Reinado remains confident. “I can push down into Dili any time I want,” he says, “but I just protect the people.” Trained in Australia, Reinado says he welcomes the arrival of the troops and looks forward to negotiating with them: “I have a nice glass of wine here for them, and we will sit and talk this out.” He and his followers fear the Australians will want to disarm the rebels, but not the regular army. Given the bloody events at the police barracks, mutter Reinado’s men, that could be a recipe for a slaughter.

Reinado is not alone. At the rebel command post at Dare, south of Dili, more police arrive to bolster his contingent. The officers have traveled from the border with Indonesia and their equipment is modern and well maintained. They are jovial as they supervise the transfer of two prisoners from the regular army. The captured soldiers are dressed in civilian clothes and receive handshakes from the rebels lining the way to the vehicle.

Suddenly the mood turns tense. The rebels have heard that Interior Minister Rogrio Lobato has been captured by the army in Dili after his car was ambushed. The silence is broken by the sound of a young boy wailing in grief. The five-year-old has just learned that his father was the driver of Lobato’s car and was killed in the ambush. East Timor was born in tears. They haven’t stopped flowing yet.

Sip, snipe, sip, snipe… reminds me of playing Counter Strike in cybercafes back in the days. :smiley: