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East Timor Violence Eases

Leaders of East Timor's fractured leadership agreed to continue talks Tuesday on stopping a wave of violence between rival gangs and factions of the armed forces. The violence appears to be easing, as international peacekeepers spread out across the capital to restore order.

East Timor's popular president and independence leader, Xanana Gusmao, made a public appeal for an end to the violence that has pitted those from the east of the country against those from the west.

Hundreds of Mr. Gusmao's supporters waited for hours in the scorching sun, some singing songs urging unity among East Timorese, some demanding that the unpopular prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, step down.

Mr. Alkatiri is at loggerheads with Mr. Gusmao over how to handle this tiny country's worst crisis since independence in 2002.

Many people blame the prime minister for mishandling a military mutiny that led to days of violence, with rival gangs fighting in the streets, torching houses, and terrorizing the general population.

The violence has exposed old wounds, pitting those from the west of the country, who are perceived to have supported Indonesia's brutal 24-year rule of East Timor, against those from the east, who are perceived to have supported independence.

Christopher Henry Samson, who was among Mr. Gusmao's supporters Monday, says the leadership of the government must change in order to stop the bloodshed.

"This is the problem from the high," he said. "And then what we demand? Demand the resignation of the prime minister. That is all. And then let every system continue. That is the wish of the people."

The violence has caused an estimated 70,000 people to flee their homes, 50,000 in Dili. Thousands have crammed into instant tent cities with no sanitation and little food, water or medicine.

The East Timor representative for the U.N. Children's Fund, Shui-meng Ng, says a lack of security has hampered the distribution of aid.

"Right now some supplies have been able to get out to the camps, mainly water. Not a lot of food," Ng said. "The government is still trying to distribute food, but the warehouses have to secured."

Foreign peacekeepers from Australia, Malaysia and New Zealand have deployed in the country after the government appealed last week for international help.

The commander of the Australian forces, Brigadier Mick Slater, says the violence decreased considerably after troops confiscated arms from the gangs.

"We have collected in the vicinity. ... I think it was about 260 odd rifles, shotguns, handguns and grenades," he said.

But most people here say it is too soon to tell if the easing of violence was due to the visible presence of the peacekeepers, or if people are merely biding their time to see if the government can solve the crisis.