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Thousands of E. Timorese shelter at convent after clash

By Staff
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DILI, Apr 30 (Reuters) Thousands of East Timorese sought shelter in a convent and other safe havens today, fearing a resurgence of protests by disgruntled soldiers and their supporters that resulted in four deaths last week.

The cash-strapped government dismissed more than 500 soldiers earlier in April, prompting a series of demonstrations joined by groups the government says have broader motives.

A demonstration on Friday turned violent, as protesters burned cars and threw rocks at police, and officers fired into the crowd.

That violence and sounds of gunfire in the seaside capital, Dili, for hours afterward prompted many to seek safety.

''Some people fled their home to some places in Dili, especially at convents,'' East Timor police chief Paulo de Fatima Martins told Reuters by telephone.

''I don't have exactly the number but in Don Bosco convent it's about 4,000 people. Beside Don Bosco they are also at the Timor Leste police academy (and) military headquarters,'' he said.

Although most shops remained closed in Dili, the situation on Sunday was generally calm, and some who fled had returned home.

One refugee, 35-year-old Olivio, told Reuters: ''I fled home with my family because we heard sounds of gunfire and I am still traumatised by the 1999 incident.'' After decades of simmering rebellion against Indonesian forces, the East Timorese people voted overwhelmingly for independence in a 1999 referendum marked by bloodshed in which an estimated 1,000 people were killed.

Most of the violence was blamed on pro-Jakarta militia backed by elements of the Indonesian military.

Friday's protest had been planned as the last in a series by the sacked soldiers. They say their dismissal was unfair and have demanded a quick government investigation.

A one-time Portuguese colony, East Timor, north of Australia and 2,100 km east of Jakarta, was invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and formally annexed the following year.

Australian troops with a UN mandate were critical to bringing peace to East Timor in 1999. After an interim period of UN administration, it became independent in 2002.

One of the world's poorest countries, East Timor has considerable energy resources but is only now starting to develop them.

REUTERS CH PM1552

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