Thousands flee Dili amid unrest rumours

Dili, May 5:

At least 21,000 residents have fled East Timor’s capital Dili, a minister said today, amid rumours of impending clashes among security forces despite repeated government assurances of their safety.

Unease since riots on April 28 which were sparked by protesting sacked soldiers and their apparent supporters has prompted some embassies to issue warnings although authorities here insist there is no threat to peace.

The soldiers had deserted their barracks complaining of discrimination in February and were later sacked.

Roads were filled with cars, trucks and motorbikes packed with household goods, witnesses said. Dili has a usual population of about 167,000.

“At this point the number of people leaving the city of Dili is around 20,000, or 5,000 families,” Minister for Social Welfare Arsenio Paixao Bano told AFP. He said this figure included families heading to villages south and east of Dili, and not western districts.

Just over 1,000 people had also left by boat to the nearby island of Atauro, Bano said. Dili residents said they were returning to their villages because of widespread rumours of potential clashes between the military and police. “I am forced to go to Ossu (in Viveque) because of this conflict between F-FDTL (the East Timorese military) and the police. It seems there is a desire for revenge,” one resident told AFP.

“I don’t necessarily believe these rumours are true, but I see lots of people leaving, so I have decided to return to my district,” he added. Aderito de Jesus Soares, a human rights lawyer living in Dili, said that in his neighbourhood every second family had left.

“People are really traumatised, so seeing people with guns running around reminds them of 1999,” he told AFP, referring to the year East Timor voted for independence following more than two decades of Indonesian rule.

Some 1,400 people were killed by Indonesian-backed militias in the bloodshed that followed. Last Friday’s violence was the worst to hit Asia’s poorest nation since then.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s office issued a statement saying the exodus, which had slowed today compared to yesterday, was based on “unsubstantiated rumours that said that the former militaries would attack town.” The government swore in a committee today tasked with probing the soldiers’ complaints, it said.

“Today, in swearing in this high-level commission, we are demonstrating our commitment to investigate the core issues raised by the former soldiers. We will not just concentrate on the events of April 28,” Alkatiri said.

The US State Department yesterday urged non-emergency personnel and family members to leave East Timor. Australian Prime Minister John Howard today raised the possibility of sending troops back to East Timor to help the country’s beleaguered government.