DILI, East Timor – Women and children ran screaming from their homes Saturday as renegade militias lit dozens of houses ablaze in East Timor's capital Saturday, even as foreign troops worked to stem violence that threatens to split the tiny nation apart.
Civilian militias armed with machetes and spears roamed the neighborhood in southern Dili, throwing rocks through the windows of the small, tin-roofed houses and setting them on fire.
Women and children fled their homes screaming, escorted by a Catholic priest who has taken them to a nearby church for shelter.
The number of casualties wasn't known but ambulances were seen leaving the scene with sirens blaring.
On Friday, hundreds of Australian troops supported by helicopters roaring overhead fanned out across the capital, aiming to keep violence between the army and former soldiers from exploding into civil war.
A small contingent of camouflage-clad U.S. Marines landed in Dili to protect the American Embassy, and Indonesia closed its land border with East Timor as the spiraling conflict drew in police, machete-wielding youths and residents frustrated by poverty and unemployment.
In a sign of the depth of hatred dividing the Indian Ocean nation, a mob torched the house of a government minister, killing five children and an adult whose charred bodies were found Friday.
The bloodshed that started after the March firing of 600 disgruntled soldiers — nearly half the 1,400-member army — is the most serious crisis East Timor has faced since it broke from Indonesian rule in 1999. The impoverished nation received millions of dollars in international aid over the last seven years, much of it focused on building up the military.
After staging deadly riots last month, the sacked troops fled the seaside capital, set up positions in the surrounding hills and threatened guerrilla war if they were not reinstated.
Sporadic gunfire and explosions, some near the presidential compound, were heard throughout the day Friday in Dili and from rebel positions on city outskirts. The clashes killed a civilian and a soldier, said Antonio Caleres, director of Dili's main hospital, bringing the death toll to 23 in the past four days.
Machete-wielding youths were seen stopping a bus outside the capital Friday, asking passengers where they were from before letting them go.
On Thursday, a crowd stormed a Dili neighborhood, where they smashed windows and used gasoline to burn houses, including the residence of Home Affairs Minister Rogerio Lobato.
Lobato was not inside but six of his relatives were killed, including two young children and three teenagers, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said.
"I ran away when I saw them coming," neighbor Victor Do Dantos, 20, said of the attackers, declining to speculate on who they were. It was unclear whether the minister's home was deliberately targeted.
Hundreds of heavily armed Australian troops patrolled the streets on foot or in armored personnel carriers Friday, backed up by Black Hawk helicopters. More Australians are expected to arrive in the coming days for a total 1,300. New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal — East Timor's former colonial power — have pledged or sent smaller numbers of troops.
Thousands of people have abandoned their homes, many seeking refuge inside the United Nations compound in Dili.
"I'm afraid and saddened. Australian troops are arriving here because we cannot solve own problems," said Julio Dos Reis, a 34-year-old prison guard standing by a roadside with his 2-year-old daughter. "Our leaders don't have the ability to resolve this."
East Timor's government asked for international help this week, but tensions grew Thursday when army soldiers attacked the national police headquarters, accusing officers of allying themselves with the renegade former troops.
U.N. police and military advisers negotiated a cease-fire under which police were to surrender weapons and leave the building. As unarmed police were escorted out, soldiers opened fire.
An injured policewoman screamed for help as U.N. officers and ambulances arrived at a street strewn with bodies and wounded in blood-soaked uniforms. At least 10 people were killed and 26 wounded, including two U.N. advisers, said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric and a hospital director.
The renegade soldiers were fired after a monthlong strike to protest what they said were poor working conditions. Many fought in the resistance against brutal Indonesian rule and felt they were denied recognition, from promotions to coveted assignments, because of discrimination. The fired soldiers come largely from East Timor's west while the military leadership is from the east.
The foreign minister said Friday he believed the issues that triggered the violence were "still capable of resolution."
"Despite our situation, I have continued to talk to all aggrieved parties in the hope we all can find a lasting, peaceful solution," said Jose Ramos Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Yet one analyst said the anger fueling the violence was rooted in East Timor's colonial past.
"Unmet expectations: You see this in a lot of postcolonial countries," Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic and expert on Indonesia and East Timor. "Lots of people believe once their colonial masters are gone everything will get better. Well, often that isn't the case."