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Australian Peacekeepers Patrol Deserted Streets of East Timor Capital


Australian peacekeepers are patrolling the deserted streets of the East Timor capital, following days of violence between rebel soldiers and the nation's armed forces that have left at least 15 people dead.

Dili's usually bustling streets and markets were nearly empty Friday. Traumatized residents stayed home, venturing out only to glimpse the first security patrols, led by a contingent of Australian peacekeepers.

The Australians, who began arriving Thursday, hope to have at least 1,300 soldiers on the ground within the next few days. They are due to be joined by troops from New Zealand, Malaysia, and Portugal, the former colonial ruler of this tiny country.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Mumford, the commanding officer of three Australian battalions that arrived Friday morning, says his soldiers will stay here as long as it takes to secure the peace.

"We'll stay here as long as required. So, if that takes weeks, or months, it means nothing to us," he said. "We'll stay here, until peace and stability is brought back to Timor."

The deployment of the peacekeepers followed an urgent appeal by the Timorese government on Wednesday for international help to quell fighting between government security forces and hundreds of former soldiers.

Violence began a month ago, when almost 600 soldiers who come from the western part of the country were dismissed by the government, after complaining of poor working conditions. They also claimed they were discriminated against by soldiers from the eastern part of the country, who fought for the nation's independence.

Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta said Friday the Australian troops will take over security, and the Timorese troops will return to their barracks.

On Thursday, nine police were killed, sporadic clashes broke out in the center of the capital, and unemployed youths armed with machetes roamed the streets.

But, by Friday, a day after the international peacekeepers began arriving, the city appeared to be settling down.

Gino Favaro, an Australian living in Dili and president of the Tourism Association of East Timor, says the arrival of the peacekeepers has brought a semblance of order back to Dili.

"It's pretty quiet, actually. It's a beautiful day in Dili today. Sunshine, a few clouds up there, and the streets have some traffic… where yesterday they had no traffic," said Favaro. "So it's much better."

Australia led an international peacekeeping force to East Timor in 1999, when the East Timorese voted in a United Nations-sponsored referendum for independence from Indonesia.

Indonesia had annexed East Timor after the Portuguese pulled out in 1975. Pro-Jakarta militias laid waste to the country during the period surrounding the referendum, killing more than a thousand people and burning towns and villages, in an attempt to head off a vote for independence.

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