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Timor leader asks church to calm fleeing residents

Written by: Staff

DILI, May 6 (Reuters) East Timor President Xanana Gusmao sought help from church leaders today to persuade panicky residents of the capital, Dili, who have fled their homes on riot rumours to return.

Thousands of Dili residents have taken refuge in their hometowns and villages over the past few days following widespread fears of a repeat of riots that hit the predominantly Catholic country last week.

The United Nations said five people were killed and at least 60 were injured in the April 30 riots that broke out in Dili after the cash-strapped East Timor government dismissed 594 soldiers.

Protesters burned cars, threw rocks at police and officers fired at the crowd then.

As many as 14,000 people fled their homes and sought refuge in churches after last week's riots. It is unclear how many of those residents return to their homes before the latest exodus.

''I have met with two bishops to ask churches across Timor to advise the East Timor people during tomorrow's mass to come back to their homes. Don't let Dili become empty,'' Gusmao told reporters, referring to the bishops of the country's two Catholic dioceses -- Dili and Baucau.

''I have tried to block the people who wanted to go to the regions, but they did not take heed because they said their security is not guaranteed,'' said the former freedom fighter.

Dili was quiet today with public transport running and markets open. However, some shops were seen closed.

East Timor Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta yesterday told the UN Security Council that with presidential and parliamentary elections due by May 2007, the country needed at least a company of international police until then because of ''the volatility and fragility of the situation.'' A company is typically 75 to 150 police.

East Timor became independent four years ago after centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, 24 years of occupation by Indonesia and 2 years of UN administration.

UN peacekeepers left a year ago and the UN mission, which once numbered 11,000 troops and civilians, was scaled back to 130 administrators, police and military advisers. The mission is now scheduled to shut down on May 20.

''Dili is on the edge. Fear is palpable among a people traumatised by past violence. There are concerns about the ability of the PNTL (local police) to maintain law and order,'' Ramos-Horta said in New York yesterday.

Australia, which led a UN-backed intervention force to East Timor in 1999 to quell violence by pro-Indonesian militias after East Timorese voted for independence from Jakarta, has indicated its willingness to send troops to the world's youngest state if necessary.

Australia led a United Nations-backed intervention force to East Timor in 1999 to suppress violence by pro-Indonesian militias after East Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia.


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