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Ruling party supporters descend on East Timor capital

Written by: Staff

DILI, June 29 (Reuters) Thousands of supporters of ousted East Timor Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri headed for the capital today as the country's president hinted he could take matters in his hands and decide on a replacement until next elections.

Around 3,000 supporters of the ruling Fretilin party, travelling in a convoy of packed trucks, buses, cars and motorbikes, were winding their way from Hera, about 16 km from Dili, under escort by international peacekeepers.

New Zealand and Australian troops had set up a huge search operation in a dry paddy field, and were painstakingly checking everyone for weapons.

The protesters, mostly youths and young men, were in good spirits, chanting ''Viva Alkatiri'' and ''Viva Fretilin''.

Alkatiri quit on Monday after weeks of protests by thousands of demonstrators who left the capital yesterday, clearing the way for his party supporters to enter the city.

Residents and foreign peacekeepers had feared the pro- and anti-Alkatiri protesters would meet and turn the sleepy seaside capital into a battleground.

The divide loosely mirrors an east-west split in Asia's newest independent state that led Alkatiri to dismiss around 600 soldiers, mostly from the country's west, after they protested against discrimination two months ago.

When rival factions of the army and police clashed, the violence spiralled into an orgy of arson and looting that only ended with the intervention of a 2,500-strong Australian-led intervention force.

Alkatiri was blamed for that, but his fate was sealed by a damaging Australian TV documentary this month that linked him and other Fretilin leaders to an alleged plot to arm a civil militia.

INDONESIAN SYMPATHIES Western Timorese are seen as having had Indonesian sympathies during the country's often brutal colonial occupation. Easterners claim credit for fighting an insurgency that ended Jakarta's rule.

But divisions run deeper, with country's political elite also divided along lines according to their liberation credentials -- either spent fighting the Indonesians, or in exile in fellow ex-Portuguese colonies such as Mozambique, Angola and Macau.

Fretilin, which holds 55 of parliament's 88 seats and, according to the constitution, has the right to nominate the next prime minister, is keen to retain the premiership.

But diplomats think Gusmao -- a popular president whose own threat to resign unless Alkatiri left office prompted mini ''people's power'' protests that led to Alkatiri's resignation -- wants a non-Fretilin premier to rule until elections next year.

In a statement made available today, he hinted that unless there was a suitable nomination from the State Council -- an appointed advisory panel that serves as a conduit between him and parliament -- he would make the choice himself.

''I am conscious that the current crisis can only be completely overcome through free elections to be held as soon as possible,'' he said.

''In the meantime, the country needs to be governed with efficiency and justice, in compliance with the Constitution, until the conditions to set the date for the elections and to call the people to decide are created.'' With the anti-Alkatiri supporters now out of the capital, Fretilin supporters are expected to try to give the party and remind Gusmao that it was still the biggest and best organised in the country.

The protesters, mostly youths and young men, have little else to do anyway. Unemployment runs at over 70 per cent in this nation of one million -- more than half of whom are below 25 years.

Reuters SY DB1010

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