DILI, East Timor – Assailants burned at least half a dozen buildings near the airport of East Timor's capital on Sunday, and residents pleaded for a permanent police presence in their neighborhoods to stop the unrest.
Violence has dwindled since foreign peacekeepers arrived in East Timor more than a week ago to restore order amid fighting that killed at least 30 people. But the latest attacks exposed the limits on what the 2,000 troops from Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia can do to curb the unrest.
Near a bridge, Malaysian soldiers kicked down doors in the search for suspects who tried to set fire to a building. Minutes after the troops left, a gang set fire to an adjacent row of houses. Fire spread to power lines and a tree, and armored personnel carriers rumbled back.
Men smashed the door and windows of a house with rocks and clubs as an Australian military vehicle stopped a few meters away, a soldier perched in the turret. No arrests were made.
Peacekeepers have confiscated hundreds of weapons, and have temporarily detained gang members whose battles have forced tens of thousands of civilians to take shelter in squalid camps in Dili or with relatives in other towns.
Yet they have refrained from firing their weapons and have often driven by scenes of looting or vandalism. While the restraint might avoid inflaming anger on the streets, it is a source of frustration for East Timorese who desperately need an effective police force to crack down on the crime.
"If they come, it's OK," resident Zeca Godinho said of the peacekeepers as a building burned nearby. "But then they leave, and it starts again."
Godinho, who owns eight trucks and runs a transport business that is now stalled by the unrest, said his family was living with other displaced people on the grounds of the airport. But he planned to stay at home to protect it against arsonists.
Some Australian and Portuguese police are already in East Timor, and more are on the way.
"The international police are now starting to come in," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told Australia's Seven Network on Sunday. "There'll be quite a strong police presence."
Downer said 35 Australian police would join a contingent in Dili, and that 250 Malaysian and 120 Portuguese police, as well as New Zealanders, would soon bolster the force. He has said the police should operate under the auspices of the United Nations, which led a nation-building program in East Timor until it declared independence in 2002.
But East Timor's police force is in disarray, confined to barracks because it was one of the factions involved in fighting. There is no immediate way to process defendants because the court system is not operating, and a mob sacked the office of the attorney-general last week.
Portuguese is widely understood in East Timor, one of Lisbon's former colonies. The Malaysians can also communicate because their language is similar to that of Indonesia, which invaded East Timor in 1975 and left in 1999 after East Timor voted for self-rule.
Pro-Indonesian militias reacted to the vote with widespread killings and destruction, and their former members are suspected in some of the recent violence that escalated last month. Military factions fought each other, and the capital then descended into warfare between gangs.