U.S. Admiral Inspects the Disarray of E. Timor U.S. Adm. William Fallon tours tumultuous East Timor, where violent clashes between eastern and western residents of the capital of Dili have been going on since the spring. Hours before Fallon arrived, the airport was still closed, the result of a deadly clash with rioters.
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U.S. Admiral Inspects the Disarray of E. Timor

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U.S. Admiral Inspects the Disarray of E. Timor

U.S. Admiral Inspects the Disarray of E. Timor

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

East Timor is the world's newest nation. It's half an island between Australia and Indonesia with beautiful natural resources, a place that won independence from Indonesia in 2002. But it remains the poorest nation in Asia, and it has grown increasingly violent since clashes between eastern and western residents of the capital of Dili began this spring. This week, things got worse. The head of the U.S. Pacific Command made his first visit yesterday, hours after factional fighting killed four.

NPR Pentagon correspondent John Hendren was with him and he filed this report.

JOHN HENDREN: On his way into town, Admiral William Fallon's convoy rolled past hundreds of rocks, the rival gang's weapon of choice, littering the airport road.

Admiral WILLIAM FALLON: It's a rather sad story of people rather destitute and the statistics are pretty grim. Fifty percent literacy and estimated 60 percent unemployed. And clearly people in tough straits. And now on top of this, we have the turmoil of the criminal activity, the gang activity that just adds to the woes. So seeing all the displaced persons in the various camps around the city, pretty discouraging.

HENDREN: Scattered throughout the camp, are camps housing many of the 150,000 internal refugees, more than one in ten people in this nation of less than 1 million.

Army Major Ron Sergeant is based in East Timor and he gives a driving tour of ambush sites where American officials have been attacked with rocks.

Major RON SERGEANT (U.S. Army): The ambassadors got hit here. ACM's gotten hit here. The USAID director got a couple windows knocked out there a few nights ago.

HENDREN: Along the road are the shells of burned out cinder block and wooden homes. Nearly 10 percent of the housing stock in a city has been destroyed.

Major SARGENT: Early yesterday morning the fighting began. The intensity level was what is striking about it.

HENDREN: As the day went on, a hodge podge of local Australian military and United Nations believes scattered outside the airport. A battle grand were mostly eastern Dili refugees live among western Dili homes. As the day wears on, more police gather along with more youths. Some through a lot using deadly sling shots, on occasion others use automatic weapons, especially when commissions recently call for the former defense and interior ministers to be prosecuted for providing state guns to renegade militias that left at least 33 people dead this spring.

Major SARGENT: What we're getting ready to go into right here is the big combat zone from yesterday. And there are certain neighborhoods you can go into here, and what you will see is essentially are lone capes.

HENDREN: It's a safe ride past the roadside stands and hums during the day especially with the military escort. But Sargent says don't try it at night.

Major SARGENT: You're going to be extorted for cigarettes or money. You'll have your car vandalized, damaged while you're sitting in it. And lastly, you will be kidnapped and murdered.

HENDREN: Admiral Fallon is impressed with the Australian military police largely credited with restoring peace in the neighborhood. But he does not seem impress with the United Nations police who are widely expected to take over the mission.

Admiral FALLON: The expectation is that the U.N. is going to play a major role in this nation building. If that's the case, then they've got their work it up for them. It looked pretty shaky to me during our visit there. There were lots of police on the street but they were gangs of youths and they did not appear to be at all intimidated by the police presence.

HENDREN: Fallon over the office of East Timor's president Xanana Gusmao, a long time leader of the resistance movement, the one East Timor its independence. NPR was allowed to attend the meeting but not to record it. We finally ask what the people were telling him, Gusmao admitted that he hadn't been out among the people much lately. When Fallon what Gusmao could do to crawl the violence, Gusmao said, talk, what else can a president do? Fallon was diplomatic but not impressed.

Admiral FALLON: It seems to me from our time with the president, acting prime minister that there's a tremendous amount of work to be done and very few hands that are experienced, savvy and literally even enough to be able to do this. So it seems to me that they're going to an awful lot need outside help.

HENDREN: Like other international observers to have come to East Timor, Pacific Command officials walk away concluding that it is a failed state with leaders who are unlikely to fix it. And the United Nations appears to be unlikely to turn the newest nation around anytime soon.

John Hendren, NPR News.

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