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E. Timor president pleads for calm

Australian troops regaining control in strife-torn capital

Australian soldiers surround East Timor Foreign Minister Jose Horta.

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(CNN) -- East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao has called for calm in his strife-torn country, where violence in the capital, Dili, has forced thousands to flee to camps in the surrounding countryside.

Australian troops escorted Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri -- who has been blamed by many in the tiny nation for failing to stop the unrest -- through a throng of protesters to a Cabinet meeting aimed at ending the unrest.

By contrast, Gusmao -- hailed as a hero of East Timorese independence -- mixed with the crowd.

"You should go to your homes," he told them. "We promise that we will resolve the East Timor problems. Please listen to me, therefore please go home and unite. We must embrace, unite and stay in our homes."

Australia dispatched troops to East Timor after a desperate plea for help quell the violence.

The peacekeepers handcuffed machete-wielding arsonists Monday in a show of force aimed at quelling the unrest, The Associated Press reports.

Terrified residents took advantage of the lull in violence to stream out of Dili, a city of around 250,000, into makeshift camps. Over a fifth of the entire population, or more than 50,000 people, already has left, the U.N. estimates.

At least 27 people have been killed and more than 100 wounded in the latest violence.

Businesses and schools remain closed in Dili amid mounting shortages of fuel, food and water. Long lines formed at a few open gas stations, AP reported.

Non-governmental organizations said many areas were simply too dangerous to receive deliveries of aid.

"If the security situation does not improve, it is possible that the humanitarian crisis could worsen significantly," Luis Vieira, a spokesman for a group of aid agencies, said in a statement.

There was a serious threat of disease outbreaks, he said.

The 1,300-strong force has claimed some progress in stemming the violence, but Prime Minister John Howard admitted Monday the going was tough -- especially since the Australians lack the power to make arrests.

"This is quite a dangerous operation," he said Monday. "You are dealing with a whole lot of disparate, uncontrolled gangs."

Howard said that the violence was, in a sense, "more dangerous than it was in 1999," when East Timor broke away from Indonesia in a wave of violent protests.

"In 1999, you had in effect an ordered retreat, not the disparate disorganized number of gangs you are dealing with."

East Timor's troubles began in March, when the government fired 600 soldiers who had gone on strike against alleged discrimination in the military.

After staging deadly riots last month, the sacked troops fled the seaside capital, setting up positions in the surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla war if they were not reinstated.

One leader of the renegade forces, Maj. Agosto De Araujo, said the ousted troops had sent a message to Gusmao offering to join peace talks.

"We are ready to be called back to the negotiating table at any time," De Araujo told The Associated Press by telephone.

East Timor, formally known as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, became independent in 2002.

It declared independence in 1975 after four centuries as a Portuguese colony, but Indonesian troops invaded just days later and ruled it for the next 24 years.

East Timor broke away from Indonesia amid a wave of violent protests that followed a 1999 referendum on independence. A U.N. transitional administration ruled the territory for nearly three years before full independence in May 2002.

CNN's Becky Anderson contributed to this report

Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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