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Violence Erupts in East Timor Following Prison Break


Violence between rival gangs has erupted in the East Timorese capital of Dili, injuring at least six people and renewing fears of civil unrest. The clashes follow the recent escape from prison of scores of fugitives, including one renegade military leader, jailed for their roles in widespread violence earlier this year.

The fighting between rival groups broke out Friday morning outside a hotel in Dili used as a center for refugees. International security forces arrived soon after and restored order.

The incident has raised tensions in the capital, which is still recovering from violence between rival military factions in May that escalated into general civil unrest. At least 20 people were killed and 150,000 displaced. Order was only restored by the arrival of international peacekeepers.

Luiz Vieira, the head of the International Organization for Migration office in East Timor, says the new outbreak of violence undermines efforts to rebuild the confidence of internally displaced persons, or IDPs.

"You know, it can be viewed as a significant development, and I think we're all very very hopeful that this issue will be resolved very soon, so it doesn't play into the politicization of the process," said Vieira. "You know, we're trying to support dialogue initiatives between people in the IDP centers and people in their communities, and, obviously, this event doesn't help our efforts."

Friday's clashes come just two days after a prison break by some of those implicated in the earlier violence.

East Timorese police are still looking for 57 inmates, who walked out of a Dili prison Wednesday. Among those still at large is Alfredo Reinado, a rebel commander imprisoned for failing to surrender weapons and leading a military faction.

Since his escape, Reinado has released a letter telling people to revolt and calling the country's current government illegal and undemocratic.

East Timor's prime minister, Jose Ramos-Horta, has partly blamed international peacekeeping forces for the escape. He told the Australian Broadcasting Network Friday that the United Nations and Australia-led peacekeepers had ignored requests for more troops outside the prison.

But Vieira defends the peacekeepers, saying they are doing their best to maintain order in a divided country.

"I think it's a very complicated situation, and they have limited resources," he said. "So, I do believe they're doing what they can do. And I think the key is to strengthen as much as possible their coordination and cooperation with the government and with people on the ground, so we can solidify the communications structures et cetera."

The Australian prime minister on Friday rejected claims that forces from his country were partly responsible for the escape.

The U.N. last week approved a new peacekeeping mission in East Timor that calls for 1,600 police to help maintain order ahead of elections next year.

Australia's foreign minister will fly to Dili Sunday for two days of talks with his East Timorese and Indonesian counterparts. Discussion will include the role of Australian-led international security forces in the new U.N. mission.

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