East Timorese Veterans, Troops Clash in Capital

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What started as sporadic clashes between former soldiers and government troops in East Timor has spiraled into open gang warfare. Violence has engulfed the capital, killing at least 27 people and wounding 100 others in the past week. Melissa Block talks with Marianne Kearney, a freelance journalist working for The Sunday Telegraph. Kearney was in Dili, East Timor, until Tuesday.


To Southeast Asia now to Timor and the fighting that's been escalating in the streets of the capital, Dili. At least 20 people have died. Gangs are attacking rival gangs with machetes. The army is fighting the police. And rebel soldiers, who were fired from the army back in March, are fighting government troops. It was those firings that started this cycle of violence.

Reporter Marianne Kearney spent the last five days in East Timor. She described the scene in the capital this morning.

Ms. MARIANNE KEARNEY (Freelance Journalist, The Sunday Telegraph): There was lots of gangs roaming around different parts of the city and they were armed with knives, (unintelligible) machetes, as well as iron bars or rocks. And they were looting and burning.

And the (unintelligible) troops did come into one or two places and managed to stop some of the gang attacks and disarm some of these men, but quite a lot got away. And I was near one church center where there was about 20 thousand refugees sheltering. And one of the brothers there told me that the (unintelligible) troops had been there in the morning, but as soon as they left, the gangs came back and started fighting again.

BLOCK: Who are these gangs?

Ms. KEARNEY: Well it's kind of a strange mixture. Some of them seem to be from certain neighborhoods and they're just groups of guys that have always hung out together. But basically it's divided along - some are supporting the troops that deserted two or three months ago. So some are supporters of rebels who are based in western East Timor and others are supporting the government and/or the military and they're mostly from the east. So it's kind of divided along ethnic lines and those who are very critical of the government and the military and those who are not.

BLOCK: And are they attacking each other or are they attacking basically anybody who gets in the way?

Ms. KEARNEY: Well they're mostly attacking each other, but they have also -apparently today one woman was attacked and had her fingers hacked off. So they're also attacking people in the way.

And there's also been some kind of revenge attacks. For instance, the house of one minister was blown with some of his relatives inside last Friday. And there's been a couple of attacks on different politicians or ministers and an assistant police chief. And it seems like either side - perhaps military or the police - are backing these attacks.

BLOCK: With this level of chaos in the capital of East Timor, what's happening to the people who live there? How are they getting by? Are they staying in their homes or are they trying to get out of the city?

Ms. KEARNEY: Well, yeah. It's very tough. A lot of them are not getting by. Quite a lot of people from both sides - either easterners or westerners - have fled to their villages to escape it. And about 40 thousand other people have fled to church compounds or they're also sheltering, for instance, at the airport just in cars or under plastic sheeting, whatever they can find. Just a certain safe point where there's either a lot of troops or where there's churches and the churches that seem to be safe from attack.

BLOCK: And are they getting food and water?

Ms. KEARNEY: No. A lot of places, they're not. They're desperate for food and water. And some people are saying that they've only eaten one meal a day. None of the shops are open. And so that's why they're seeing a whole lot of looting. And thousands of people kind of went crazy when one of two warehouses were opened by some of the gangs and then lots of other people came along and grabbed sacks of rice and whatever else they could get their hands on.

BLOCK: Well there are international peacekeepers there from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia. Are they making a difference?

Ms. KEARNEY: They've been making some difference, but initially they were a little bit slow on the ground, because at first they didn't' actually have any means to travel around. They could only travel on foot so they were very cautious. And then they also, their rules of engagement were mostly to deal with the military and the police and not to actually deal with the gangs. They hadn't anticipated this gang violence. It's only now that they're starting to try and disarm the gangs.

But there's still probably not enough and they're still moving too slowly and not disarming them quickly enough.

BLOCK: Marianne Kearney, thanks very much.

Ms. KEARNEY: Thanks a lot.

BLOCK: Reporter Marianne Kearney talking about the fighting in East Timor. She spoke with us from Jakarta, Indonesia.

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