Skip to main content
U.S. Edition

Australia rushes troops to Timor

Reports of more gunfire as people flee capital

Villagers arrive at the U.N. compound in Dili to seek shelter from fighting.


East Timor

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- Australian troops have arrived in the capital of East Timor, after weeks of clashes between security forces and former soldiers in this troubled nation have left people on edge.

The 130 commandos arrived in Dili on Thursday on Blackhawk helicopters and Hercules aircraft to secure the airport ahead of the arrival of 1,300 Australian soldiers.

The commandos were the first international forces to enter East Timor after 600 disgruntled soldiers began clashing with security forces. Dozens of foreigners have fled since the unrest began.

On Thursday, fierce gun battles raged in the capital, according to news agencies, while homes and businesses were torched.

The Australian frigate HMAS Adelaide was now in Dili harbor ready to assist, Prime Minister John Howard said.

New Zealand has committed 30 soldiers, and Portugal will send a mobile police force of about 120, though this deployment is expected to take several weeks. Malaysia too said troops were on the way.

Announcing the deployment, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said they would be on a "dangerous mission" in a dangerous situation.

At least six people have died in recent weeks, according to news agencies.

An East Timor army captain became the latest victim, when he was killed in the capital Dili Thursday in a fresh exchange of gunfire between the two groups.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told CNN Thursday that troops would be going into a "difficult and dangerous" environment, but it was right for Australia to respond to East Timor's request.

East Timor sought help from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia on Wednesday, when it became clear the security situation was worsening.

Downer said that in a practical sense, only Australia had the capability to get substantial numbers of troops into East Timor quickly.

The United Nations said it was setting up a refugee camp near its East Timor headquarters in Dili to accommodate people fleeing from the fighting.

Embassies, including those of Australia and the United States, are evacuating non-essential personnel.

Heavily armed

Journalist David O'Shea, who is in East Timor, told CNN Thursday it was clear that the disgruntled soldiers who had taken to the hills in recent weeks were heavily armed.

He said international troops would face a different situation to 1999, when an Australian-led force was welcomed by East Timorese suffering at the hands of rampaging pro-Indonesia militia groups, following the August 1999 vote for independence from Indonesia.

"This time the battle lines are unclear," O'Shea said, with the allegiance of the police and military tending to fracture along ethnic lines.

The situation in East Timor has been deteriorating since 595 of the army's total strength of 1,400 soldiers were dismissed in March. They had gone on strike over complaints of discrimination and poor working conditions.

They maintain that because they are of the Loromonu clan from the west of the country, they are denied promotion by officers drawn from the eastern clan, Lorosae, which is centered on the towns of Baucau and Lospalos. The western half of the island of Timor remains part of Indonesia.

A government commission was established this month to investigate the soldiers' allegations.

But East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao has also vowed that security forces will hunt down those responsible for the fighting, including Major Alfredo Alves Reinado, the Australian-trained officer who led the military police until his decision on May 4 to decamp to the hills outside Dili in support of the sacked soldiers.

Downer told CNN that the role of the international troops would be to stabilize the situation and provide an environment in which the East Timor government could get on with talking to the disgruntled soldiers.

People fleeing

O'Shea told CNN that he hoped the arrival of troops would "restore sense" in East Timor, which is the world's newest nation and one of the poorest.

Much of its economy is based on agriculture, while potential income from services such as tourism has been hit by the poor security situation.

The country has huge offshore reserves of oil and gas, including a large area shared with Australia, but has only just begun to exploit them. Development has been delayed by a dispute over the siting of a gas processing plant.

The former Portuguese colony of East Timor was invaded and annexed by Indonesia in 1975. Over the ensuing 24 years of Indonesian occupation, as many as 200,000 people may have died, according to human rights groups. During that time, Gusmao led a guerrilla campaign by his Fretilin force against the Indonesian army.

After the 1999 independence vote, a U.N. administration oversaw the country's transition to full independence in 2002.

The U.N. mission of 130 administrators, police and military advisers was due to finish in East Timor on May 20, but was extended for a month after the April riots.

Story Tools
Click Here to try 4 Free Trial Issues of Time! cover
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
Top Stories
Get up-to-the minute news from CNN gives you the latest stories and video from the around the world, with in-depth coverage of U.S. news, politics, entertainment, health, crime, tech and more.
CNN TV E-mail Services CNN Mobile CNNAvantGo Ad Info About Us Preferences
© 2007 Cable News Network LP, LLLP.
A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines. Contact us. Site Map.
Offsite Icon External sites open in new window; not endorsed by
Pipeline Icon Pay service with live and archived video. Learn more
Radio News Icon Download audio news  |  RSS Feed Add RSS headlines