DILI, East Timor – International peacekeepers arrived in East Timor's smoldering capital Thursday to restore order as gunbattles between renegade troops and government forces threatened to plunge the world's youngest country into civil war.
At least nine people were killed and dozens wounded Thursday in fierce fighting across Dili in a third day of running gunbattles in the capital that sent terrified residents and foreigners fleeing for safety, some rushing to the airport.
"I feel horrible, like a rat deserting a sinking ship," said Australian Margaret Hall, who arrived in the country several months ago with an organization that is helping provide maternal and child health care. "But I'm confident we'll be back."
The unrest in East Timor is the most serious threat to the desperately poor country since it broke from Indonesian rule in 1999 in massive violence that ended only with the arrival of an Australian-led international peacekeeping mission. The United Nations administered the tiny nation for the next three years, during which time the army was formed — critics say too hastily, contributing to the present crisis.
The latest dispute began in March when 600 soldiers — nearly 40 percent of East Timor's entire armed forces — were fired after going on strike to protest alleged discrimination in the military.
Some hard-liners fled the capital, hunkering down in surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla warfare if they were not reinstated.
The fighting Thursday flared across Dili — including near President Xanana Gusmao's office and the U.N. compound where around 1,500 residents had sought refuge. Homes and business were torched, with plumes of smoke rising over virtually deserted streets.
In New York, U.N. Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said nine people were killed and 27 others wounded — including two U.N. police advisors — during an attack on the national police headquarters in Dili.
"As the unarmed police were being escorted out, army soldiers opened fire on them," Dujarric said.
"After an hour-long attack at the Dili police headquarters by army elements, U.N. police and military advisers had negotiated a ceasefire that was agreed on the condition that the police officers surrender their weapons and leave the headquarters unarmed," he said.
Earlier, two former soldiers and an army captain were killed, the military and Lt. Gastao Salsinha, a spokesman for the ex-soldiers, said. Fourteen ex-soldiers and a South Korean bystander were wounded.
The chaos prompted the fledgling nation's government to ask for international troops.
The first of 1,300 Australian forces arrived Thursday in an Australian military plane, welcomed by hundreds of cheering East Timorese seeking refuge at the airport, some clapping, crying and shouting "Thank God!"
"Welcome Ozzie soldiers, please help us once again," said Judit Isaac, a 47-year-old housewife as some 100 troops in full combat gear fanned out across the airport, taking up positions in the grass in the center of the runway.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard told reporters in his nation's capital Canberra the remaining troops would arrive soon.
"I have little doubt that once all of our forces are there, there will be a significant return of stability and normality," he said.
New Zealand said it was sending 60 police and soldiers. Portugal, which colonized East Timor for four centuries until 1975, also got the go-ahead to send 120 troops, while Malaysia pledged 500.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan spoke to the prime ministers of Australia and Malaysia and he is also consulting the New Zealand and Portuguese governments, the U.N. spokesman said.
Annan has also spoken to Gusmao and East Timor's Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, he said, adding that the secretary-general had decided to send Ian Martin, the man who earler served as his special representative to East Timor, back to the strife-torn half island.
The commander of East Timor's renegade forces — whom the country's top military chief said he wants captured dead or alive — said bringing in peacekeepers was the only way to prevent civil war.
"This is the only solution," Maj. Alfredo Reinado, commander of the 600-strong breakaway force, said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp. "There is no other way, or it will be war forever. The government has taken too long. It is not capable of resolving this."
Preparing for the worst, dozens of foreigners fled the country, including 40 Australian Embassy staff and their families. The U.S. Embassy has also ordered the evacuation of all nonessential personal and advised American citizens in the country to leave.
The roots of the security crisis are complex, analysts say, stemming in part from the rush to create an army following East Timor's independence push. Foreign military advisers were often at odds over training methods, and the selection and roles of officers.
Critics say veterans of the independence struggle — the renegade troops among them — were often passed over for key positions. The ex-soldiers also claim they were discriminated against because they came from the country's west, while the military leadership hails from the east.
Indonesia ruled East Timor with an iron fist for 24 years. Human rights groups say as many as 200,000 were killed under its occupation.