Anti-Government Protesters Let Into Dili

The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 6, 2006; 2:53 PM

DILI, East Timor -- Some 2,000 protesters calling for the ouster of East Timor's prime minister cruised around Parliament in a convoy of horn-blaring trucks and motorcycles Tuesday, hours after mobs set fire to buildings and looted a warehouse filled with farm supplies.

The unrest was less severe than the fighting between military factions and gang warfare that erupted last month, killing at least 30 people, but it underscored the huge challenge for international forces and East Timor's fractured government as they try to restore a sense of normalcy to Dili.

Tens of thousands of fearful residents have fled their homes and are living in makeshift camps and shelters in and around the city. U.N. agencies have delivered emergency airlifts of food rations, cooking sets, tents and blankets.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri oversaw the dismissal in March of 600 striking soldiers, who clashed with loyalist troops and fled to the hills. Rival gangs took to the streets in the absence of security forces.

Malaysian peacekeepers searched vehicles on a major road near the airport in one of their most robust security checks in recent days.

They at first blocked the convoy of flag-waving protesters, but eventually allowed them to enter the city under the escort of Malaysian armored personnel carriers.

"Down with Alkatiri!" the demonstrators shouted, punching their fists in the air as they circled Parliament and government offices. A man using a loudspeaker urged East Timorese to forget their differences and unite: "Give power to President Xanana Gusmao and bring down Alkatiri!"

The convoy stopped at the office of Gusmao, an adored former guerrilla chief who stood on the roof of a car with a loudspeaker and said he would consider the demands, but urged the protesters to be peaceful.

"We have discussed this in the Council of State and we realized we have a political crisis, an economic crisis, a security crisis, a constitutional crisis," said Gusmao, his eyes filling with tears at times. "The priority now is to stop people burning, and guns shooting."

House speaker Francisco Guterres said no protests should be allowed while so many are homeless.

"The government ... should bring home refugees in the camps step by step first before permitting any groups to speak out about their political interest through demonstrations," Guterres said.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of young men looted a warehouse near the city center, running off with agricultural machinery, bags of grain, sheet metal and fertilizer. In neighborhoods close to the airport, several plumes of smoke rose from buildings set on fire by rampaging gangs.

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© 2006 The Associated Press