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Ethnic Fighting Rages in East Timorese Capital


The East Timorese capital, Dili, has descended into chaos, with gangs of youths armed with guns and knives torching houses and burning cars while international peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia struggle to bring order to the city.

Dili was on fire Saturday as ethnic violence escalated, with thousands of panicked people running to churches, embassies, and a United Nations compound for sanctuary.

Visibly shaking, 80-year-old Lorenzo Rodriguez watches helplessly as his house burns to the ground after gangs set it ablaze. He says more foreign troops are needed to stop the violence.

"We want to come here international force," he said. "Situation in East Timor is very bad. Our house finished…bad situation in East Timor, we don't like it."

International peacekeepers started arriving in this poor Asian country Thursday after the government appealed for help following days of fighting between armed forces and rebel soldiers. Many people here want the troops to use stronger tactics to stop the escalating violence.

After rounds of gunfire went off near the United Nations compound, where hundreds of refugees are seeking shelter, Australian peacekeepers fanned out, confiscating weapons.

But as soon as the troops move out of an area, the violence starts up again.

Evelina Santorino, who fled to a church after gangs attacked her neighborhood, says she cannot understand why the East Timorese are fighting each other.

"It's awful. We're the East Timor people, we're not people who come from other countries," she said. "It's between our people. It's a horrible thing for us. Just like a bad dream."

The violence started last month when the government sacked nearly 600 soldiers who had deserted their posts complaining of discrimination and poor working conditions.

The rebel soldiers hail from the west of the country and most supported Indonesia during its 24-year brutal rule of the country.

They complain that soldiers from the east - who fought for the country's independence - receive preferential treatment.

Dozens of people have been killed in the riots of the last few weeks, with gangs of unemployed youths joining in the melee.

To add to the confusion, the government appears to be split, with East Timor's highly respected independence leader and president, Xanana Gusmao, and Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri divided over how to handle the crisis.

But foreign minister Jose Ramos Horta said Friday that the violence could still be ended by dialogue and that he is continuing private talks with both sides.

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