DILI, East Timor – Hundreds of foreign troops struggled to keep East Timor from tipping into civil war Friday amid widening violence, including a mob attack that killed six relatives of a government minister and set his house ablaze.
A small contingent of U.S. Marines flew in to provide security for the American Embassy. A Navy plane touched down in the capital, Dili, and at least 15 camouflage-clad Marines got off, walking across the tarmac to waiting vehicles.
Indonesia sealed its border with East Timor to prevent the conflict between the army and renegade troops from spilling over as it drew in police officers, machete-wielding youths and ordinary citizens.
The death toll from four days of violence climbed to 23 after a mob attacked a house belonging to Home Affairs Minister Rogerio Lobato, smashing its windows and splashing it with gasoline before setting it ablaze.
His relatives killed in the Thursday attack included two young children and three teenagers, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri said in a television address. Their charred bodies were discovered Friday, in the living room, bedroom and bathroom.
Lobato was not inside during the attack, which also hit nearby houses.
Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta said 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," Horta said in a statement.
Members of the Connecticut-sized country's 800-member army attacked the national police headquarters Thursday, accusing police of allying themselves with a large band of dismissed soldiers who have engaged in street battles with the military in Dili.
After an hour, U.N. police and military advisers negotiated a cease-fire under which the police were to surrender their weapons and leave the building.
But as the unarmed police were escorted out, "army soldiers opened fire on them," killing 10 and wounding 26 others, according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric and a local hospital director, who said one died of his injuries overnight.
Two of the U.N. advisers were injured, Dujarric said in New York.
An injured policewoman screamed for help as U.N. officers arrived at a street strewn with bodies and injured people in blood-soaked uniforms. Paramedics carried away the dead and rushed the injured into ambulances.
The unrest in East Timor is the most serious threat to the desperately poor country since it won independence from Indonesia in 1999. The attack on policemen illustrated the dangers facing peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia, the first of whom arrived Thursday.
The United Nations, which spent millions of dollars training East Timor's army and setting up the country, urged the government to take "all necessary steps" to end the violence, which has been fueled by simmering tensions in a nation divided along east-west lines.
Machete-wielding youths were seen stopping a bus on the city's outskirts and asking passengers where they were from, before eventually letting them go.
Streets across the city were largely deserted, with thousands of terrified residents fleeing to the waterfront, or seeking shelter in schools, community centers and the main U.N. compound. There were sporadic bursts of gunfire in parts of downtown Dili, but the arrival of hundreds of foreign troops appeared to have prevented large-scale battles Friday.
Antonio Caleres, the director of Dili's main hospital, said that a civilian and a soldier were killed in new clashes Friday. Five others died in gunbattles earlier in the week.
The violence follows the government's decision in March to fire 600 soldiers — 40 percent of the military — after they staged a monthlong strike to protest poor pay and alleged discrimination in the armed forces.
After engaging in deadly riots last month, the rebel troops fled the capital, setting up positions in the surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla warfare if they were not reinstated.
The dismissed soldiers are largely from the country's west, while the military's leadership originates from the east.
The renegade soldiers said they were routinely passed up for promotions and often given the worst assignments.
Widening the conflict, some police officers allied themselves with the disgruntled soldiers, Jean-Marie Guehenno, the chief of the U.N. peacekeeping department, said in New York.
Some disillusioned youths have apparently picked up arms, and ordinary citizens, frustrated by poverty and unemployment in the tiny nation six years after Indonesian rule ended, also are taking up sides.
"Unmet expectations. You see this in a lot of postcolonial countries," said Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic and expert on Indonesia and its former province. "Lots of people believe once their colonial masters are gone everything will get better. Well, often that isn't the case."
Australia, which led a multinational peacekeeping force in East Timor in 1999 that ended a bloody rampage by Indonesian troops and their militia proxies following its independence vote, said it would send up to 1,300 troops, along with ships, helicopters and armored personnel carriers.
Hundreds of heavily armed Australian forces arrived Thursday and Friday, with the rest expected as early as Saturday. They immediately started securing the airport and key institutions in the capital, Black Hawk helicopters hovering overhead.
New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark said her nation would send up 120 troops. Portugal, which colonized East Timor for four centuries until 1975, also got the go-ahead to send 120 forces, while Malaysia pledged 500.