Operation to capture rebel leader surges violence in East Timor

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Sunday, March 4, 2007

Timor Island as seen from the sky.
Photo Credit: NASA

Several conflicts involving civilians occurred in East Timor at the same time that Australian-led peacekeeping troops stormed a town where a rebel former army officer and his men have been under siege.

The Australian soldiers, supported by helicopters and armored vehicles, stormed the town of Same, 50km south of the capital Dili, at dawn.

Four armed East Timorese men were killed and two others injured during the operation, but their leader, Major Alfredo Reinado, escaped the troops.

The operation was authorised by East Timor's president, Xanana Gusmão, after Reinado refused to negotiate.

The Major was directly involved in the clashes with the government forces last May, and was later jailed by Portuguese troops for having in his possession dozens of weapons and explosives that he hadn't handed over to the Australian troops in charge of disarming the rebels. Reinado escaped during a mass breakout from a Dili jail last August.

After the Australian-led operation started, many conflicts occurred simultaneously in different parts of Dili, with roads being barricaded and cut off by burning tires, rocks and trees. Many houses and vehicles were also burned, as violence between rival groups started on the streets.

The Vila Verde neighborhood, right in the center of Dili, was one of the most affected, with facilities of the Education Ministry being engulfed by a fire until the morning.

Benjamin Marty, finance manager for the Norwegian Council for Refugees in East Timor, has his house and office in Vila Verde, in the same street that connects the Portuguese Corporation Neighborhood to the United Nations Integrated Mission in Timor-Leste (UNMIT) headquarters.

"I didn't get too worried when a saw a group of people starting to hit the gate, but I called my boss, that said me to stay calm." Bryn Bithell-Marty said.

"Ten minutes later, I see the GNR arrive and starting to fire rubber bullets to the right and to the left" of the street, Marty remembered.

"They called and asked me to open the gate, but initially I didn't understood what they wanted, because I don't speak Portuguese. Just in some minutes, I was inside a armored vehicle, and we got out of there at the same speed that they had arrived, deviating from the barricades with a lot of skill", Marty added.

Benjamin Marty said he was "surprised with the professionalism" with which the Portuguese Republican National Guard (GNR) acted, but he was discontented with members of the United Nations Police (UNPol).

"There's UNPol near my house, the patrol cars were always stopped and the police agents didn't do anything», Marty said, adding that the UNPol agents also didn't react "hours early when some people started to burn tires and hitting metal to call other people to the street".

The clashes in Taibessi, Pité neighbourhood, and at the entrance of the UNMIT headquarters were the most severe, involving firearms in some locations.

In Banana Road, one of the main roads that crosses the city, a group of teenagers guarded a poster of Alfredo Reinado.

"We are the defenders of Major Alfredo, hero of the justice. We are ready to die to defend him", said one of them.

In the streets of Taibessi since some days ago that the illumination posts and some trees have posters and banners of Alfredo Reinado.

As a response to the successive attacks by a group on the Pité neighborhood, 15 Portuguese Public Security Police (PSP) officers, organized themselves without orders from the UNPol, and for three hours the 15 officers faced the attacks.

Later back at the GNR headquarters, Benjamin Marty, found himself even more surprised. "Do you know how the Asterix and Obelix stories end?" he said. On the GNR headquarters there wasn't a party with roasted boars, like in the Gaul village, "but there was a cow in the skewer", he added.

All of the three GNR operational platoons then left their monthly festivity to the streets of Dili, for a operation that lasted seven hours.

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