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Australian Peacekeepers Arrive in East Timor as Fighting Continues


Australian commandos have arrived in East Timor, a day after the country asked for international help to quell growing unrest in and around the capital, Dili. local officials say fighting between dismissed soldiers and government forces has killed at least two people.

The first contingent of foreign troops arrived in East Timor after residents woke up to a second day of fighting.

Gunbattles broke out near the office of President Xanana Gusmao and near the U.N. compound, where some people had sought refuge. Hundreds of people have fled the capital.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, whose government is sending some 1,300 troops to East Timor, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the situation there was "dangerous".

"Not only do some people have weapons, have rifles but I've heard of reports of people with rocket propelled grenades," he said.

The East Timorese government Wednesday asked for international help to stabilize the security situation in the small country, the world's youngest nation. New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal are also sending troops.

The crisis erupted on April 28 after 600 dismissed soldiers, one third of the country's military forces, rioted over complaints of alleged discrimination in the military. That outbreak of violence, in which five people were killed, was the worst in East Timor since its vote for independence from Indonesia in 1999.

Downer said the dismissed soldiers welcome Australia's effort to stabilize the situation.

Australian defense forces trained some of the soldiers, including their leader Major Alfredo Reinado. Australia led the first international peacekeeping mission to East Timor in 1999 after violence by pro-Indonesian militias killed one thousand people and destroyed large parts of the country.

Charles Scheiner of the independent, East Timor Institute of Reconstruction Monitoring and Analysis says the violence has dealt a setback to the country's efforts to recover from decades of war and economic stagnation.

"I think it is a sad day for East Timor that they had to call international military forces to come and help," said Scheiner. "The government here has not been able to calm the situation enough and doesn't feel that they will be able calm it enough so that people feel safe."

The government says it is ready to investigate the soldiers' complaints. But President Xanana Gusmao has vowed to capture those responsible for the violence.