Pre-election tension in East Timor after killings

The situation remains tense in East Timor's capital, Dili, in the wake of the Australian Defence Force-led operation on March 4 to capture renegade East Timorese army officer Major Alfredo Reinado.

Prior to the assault, Australian forces encircled the town of Same, 50 kilometres south of Dili, where Reinado's camp had been holed-up after taking a cache of weapons and ammunition from an East Timorese police border post near the village of Turiscai on February 25. President Xanana Gusmao used the Turiscai incident as the pretext to request Australian forces to capture Reinado (although Reinado and his supporters claim that the weapons were not stolen or taken by force but handed over willingly by the border police).

The pre-dawn raid failed to capture Reinado, but resulted in five of his group being killed. According to the chief of the Australian-led "International Stabilisation Force", Mal Rerdon, all or most of his weapons were captured. The news of the attempted capture of Reinado and deaths of five of his followers sparked rioting and street protests by his supporters throughout Dili. Angry gangs of youths stoned cafes and restaurants that Australians and other Westerners are known to frequent.

While most of the rioting had eased by March 7, threats by Reinado supporters against Gusmao and members of his family were followed by attacks on the homes of two of Gusmao's sisters. Manuela Gusmao's home was attacked twice within three days. Two rice warehouses also came under attack from gangs, though it is unclear if these attacks were related to the attempt to capture Reinado.

The move to rein in Reinado and his group comes after months of protracted stand-off and negotiation following his escape from Becora prison in August 2006, where he was being held in relation to charges arising from his involvement in armed clashes with the East Timorese Defence Force (FDTL) during the May 2006 crisis. Reinado has repeatedly called for the Fretilin-led government to be dissolved and, more recently, for the presidential election to be postponed.

The timing of the operation to try to capture Reinado is also part of an attempt by the East Timorese government and the United Nations mission to establish greater security within East Timor in the lead-up to the April 9 presidential election (and the election of a new legislature, due by July).

Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta (who is a presidential candidate) has said that there needs to be tougher laws to allow police to detain people for longer than the 72 hour limit at present. In an interview broadcast on Portuguese Radio Renascenca on March 6, Horta stated: "Police carry out an operation, detain dozens of protestors and what do the courts do? Free them. The same people, who have been detained several times, know they will only be in jail for 72 hours".

An extra 150 UN police will arrive over March to bolster the present contingent and assist with pre- and post-election security (the UN mission has had its mandate extended to February 2008).

A key problem for the country is ongoing — if sporadic — gang violence, which is often in the form of harassment and extortion of the more than 100,000 internally displaced Timorese living in camps dotted around Dili. Compounding the tense political and social situation is the food scarcity and rice shortage, especially outside of Dili. The Food and Agriculture Organisation anticipates a 50% shortfall in the upcoming harvest.

A further test for the Fretilin-led government will be in how successfully it distances itself from the March 7 conviction of former cabinet minister Rogerio Lobato, sentenced to seven-and-a-half years' prison for charges relating to the arming of hit squads to eliminate government opponents in May 2006. The Dili District Court also found Lobato guilty of four charges of manslaughter and one count of unlawfully using firearms to disturb public order.

Lobato is expected to appeal against the verdict. Similar charges against former prime minister Mari Alkatiri were dropped by prosecutors in February due to a lack of evidence. Alkatiri has agreed to assist with further investigations into the events of last year's violence.

In a March 8 comment piece, Damien Kingsbury, an East Timor commentator and an associate professor at Deakin University, argued: "The question now will be the extent to which Fretilin tries to limit the fall-out from Lobato's conviction in the face of the impending elections. In this it will have to balance a desire for as much distance as possible from the convicted felon with a need to ensure he does not now discuss more freely what he knows about who gave what order to arm the hit squads."

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