By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 27, 2006
JAKARTA, Indonesia, June 26 -- Crowds celebrated in the streets of East Timor's capital, Dili, on Monday after Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri resigned, a step that eased tensions that have fueled weeks of violent clashes in the city.
Alkatiri, who had resisted calls for his removal, said he was quitting to prevent the threatened resignation of East Timor's popular president, Xanana Gusmao. Gusmao, a resistance leader against Indonesian occupation turned founding father of independent East Timor, had suggested last week he might step down if Alkatiri remained in office but later backed away from the threat.
By quitting, Alkatiri told reporters outside his home in Dili, he was "assuming my own share of responsibility for the crisis affecting our country."
The prime minister had engineered the military's dismissal in March of about 600 soldiers, many of whom had alleged that the armed forces discriminated against members from the western part of East Timor. Alkatiri's order to discharge nearly half the military sharply escalated political turmoil in the country.
Gun battles broke out among rival factions within the security forces, which provoked clashes between roaming gangs of easterners and westerners. With the government unable to control civil strife that has left at least 30 people dead and forced more than 100,000 to flee their homes, an Australian-led peacekeeping force arrived in the country last month to restore order.
The violence was the worst since East Timor, one of the world's youngest and smallest countries, voted for independence from Indonesia seven years ago. It was a serious setback to what had been widely considered the United Nations' most successful effort at nation-building.
Alkatiri came to office in 2002 as a relative unknown, a figure lacking in charisma who spent much of East Timor's 24-year independence struggle living in exile in Mozambique.
For weeks he had rebuffed demands for his resignation in the face of mounting allegations of wrongdoing, including accusations that he formed a death squad to silence political opponents. Alkatiri has denied involvement with hit squads, but his former interior minister is facing charges that he armed civilian militias at the prime minister's request.
The ruling Fretilin Party had also resisted calls for Alkatiri's ouster. On Sunday, the party voted to endorse Alkatiri's continued tenure, prompting Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who recently took over the defense portfolio, to quit the government in protest.
Thousands of protesters rallied along the Dili waterfront demanding the prime minister's departure. Those demonstrations turned to joy as word of his resignation spread Monday.
There was no immediate announcement about who would replace him.