East Timor Updates, June 1 2006: Women at the fore demanding peace Print E-mail

Sydney Morning Herald -- Thursday June 1 2006
June 1, 2006 - 1:40PM

Two faces of Timor ... a masked gang member attacks a man with a machete, while hungry children laugh as they try to load a sack of rice onto a bicycle. Photos: Reuters and AFP

· Women stage peace rally

· Gusmao takes to streets

· Looters raid food store

· Tear gas breaks up gang clash

After a new round of looting and gang clashes, Timor's women and president take to the streets to make passionate pleas for peace.

 Looters  forced their way into an unguarded rice store in the centre of Dili today while Australian troops elsewhere in the capital broke up a gang fight with tear gas.

But about 30 women staged a demonstration near the government's main offices to call for peace.

Their appeal comes as more Dili homes lie empty, with more than 100,000 people either fleeing the city or living in  camps, says Kym Smithies, a spokeswoman for about 30 private aid groups.

'Let us unite for one larger interest':  Gusmao
President Xanana Gusmao took to the streets of Dili today to win back the loyalty of the country's security forces and to help calm the violence-wracked capital.

His first stop was the national police headquarters where he made an impassioned plea to a contingent of about 60 officers.

"Let us unite for one larger interest that is of common concern to us all, that is the stability in East Timor, especially in Dili, so as to reduce the suffering of the people," he said.

He told the officers to "forget the words Loromonu and Lorosae", referring to the western and eastern parts of the country.

"Let us forget what has happened, the violence that has taken place. It is our duty to forgive each other and rebuild this nation that we all love, from the ashes," he said. "These are the most critical ones for us all."

Police officers weep at president's words
Some female police officers in the front row had tears running down their cheeks listening to Gusmao, who is a national hero for leading a guerrilla war for independence against Indonesia.

"I know that some of you who are standing in front of me come from Lorosae, and others from Loromonu," he said. "But I am proud because you remain united and remain loyal in serving this state and nation."

Earlier, a squad of soldiers arrived to put down chaotic scenes at the country's main rice reserve warehouse, where commandos have been handing out 50kg sacks of rice to tens of thousands of local people in recent days.

However, no Australians were on guard when a crowd gathered there this morning.

Looters raid food store
A mob of looters surged inside after some smashed the locks off the warehouse's steel doors just after 7am (9am AEST).

As a way of getting Australian troops to intervene, some onlookers phoned in false reports that two looters had been killed in the crush.

"We have to say that so the soldiers will come," said Ilda Mendez, 24.

Two four-wheel drive vehicles loaded with soldiers arrived along with an ambulance.

Hundreds of locals then scattered with sacks of rice on their shoulders or in carts.

Others pounded on the steel doors, shouting "Malae, malae" (foreigners, foreigners), as a warning to the hundreds still inside the warehouse.

Forcing their way into the chaotic crush, the soldiers booted out more than 300 people as thousands more watched from outside, held back by a small circle of troops.

Soldiers force out looters
"Get the f--k out of here! Get your arse out," the soldiers screamed, grabbing locals by shirt collars and forcing them to drop stolen sacks.

Three more utes arrived soon after with reinforcements.

Inside, abandoned bags of rice were scattered everywhere, many of them split and leaking their precious contents onto the concrete floor.

"We've just come into enforce security and to stop the looting," Corporal Brad Kay  said. "I don't know why there was no-one here earlier."

Mendez said two men had forced the locks off the doors.

"We told them the rice has to be distributed by the Australians, because we cannot do it. But they didn't want to listen," she said.

Tear gas breaks up gangs
Meanwhile, other Australian troops used tear gas today to break up warring gangs near the Comoro markets on Dili's western outskirts.

The two gangs, from rival eastern and western Timorese clans, were attacking one another with machetes and arrows.

Australian forces arrived at the scene this morning and threw tear gas canisters at the fighting mob.

The Comoro area has been a flashpoint over recent days with the same gangs clashing several times on a main road that leads to Dili airport.

It was the second time in several days that tear gas has been used by Australian-led international forces.