MAUBISSE, East Timor – A renegade East Timorese military commander and about 30 of his followers turned in their weapons at the request of the president Friday, but warned that peace won't last if Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri remains in power.
Lt. Cmdr. Alfredo Reinado, leader of a campaign to oust Alkatiri, handed over his M-16 assault rifle and six magazines of ammunition to Australian peacekeepers at a century-old Portuguese villa on a mountaintop overlooking Dili where he and his rebel troops have been based for more than a month.
Reinado and his supporters, dressed in camouflage fatigues, laid down 12 automatic rifles, four pistols and an unknown amount of ammunition to start a disarmament process seen as vital to ending the recent violence that has threatened to plunge the fledgling nation into civil war.
Beforehand, there was an atmosphere of celebration on the cloud-cloaked mountaintop as the rebel soldiers laughed and shared miniature bottles of aged whisky on a verandah. Reinado played with his tiny puppy, named Black.
But later, Reinado minimized the significance of the disarmament in finding a lasting solution to East Timor's current crisis.
"That doesn't mean that I hand over my rifle, I solve the problem," he told reporters in the villa near the village of Maubisse, referring to a need for a political solution.
He said peace and justice cannot be achieved in East Timor while Alkatiri remains in power.
Alkatiri, whose ruling party is likely to win elections next year and who was re-elected party leader last month, has refused to go unless he is voted out of office.
"It's better for him to go than for someone to force him to go," Reinado said, although he insisted that he would not force the prime minister out.
Reinado was one of 600 soldiers fired by Alkatiri in March in a move that triggered armed conflict within the military ranks and overflowed into mob violence in Dili.
More than 30 people have died and the U.N. refugee agency estimates nearly 150,000 have fled their homes, but peacekeepers from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore have managed to maintain relative peace in Dili's streets this week.
Friday's surrender of weapons was secured by President Xanana Gusmao, who telephoned Reinado on Thursday night and promised to meet him in person soon to discuss the crisis. Reinado and his group of around 30 troops agreed to turn in their weapons after a written order from Gusmao was delivered by the president's envoy.
Reinado argues that only the president, a critic of Alkatiri, has power under the Constitution to fire him. Gusmao's office on Friday acknowledged that Reinado was still part of the national defense force and that Alkatiri's dismissal of him had been overruled.
It is hoped that disarming the rebel soldiers, many of whom fled to the hills with weapons, will create an environment for talks to resolve the conflict.
Government officials could not be immediately reached for comment. In Dili, U.N. special representative Sukehiro Hasegawa called the weapons handover a "first step in the right direction."
Earlier, Army Brig. Mick Slater, commander of the Australian-led forces charged with restoring order to East Timor, said Reinado's men would remain protected by Australian troops while they remained based in Maubisse, nearly 50 miles north of the capital.
While the violence has ebbed since foreign peacekeepers arrived just over two weeks ago, many in the camps remain too scared to return to their neighborhoods where roaming gangs set houses on fire and attacked rivals.