Thousands of Protesters Work to Oust East Timor Prime Minister

Thousands of protesters demanded the ouster of East Timor's prime minister Saturday, blaming him for provoking violence and political chaos.

The noise of the demonstration forced the cancellation of a ruling party meeting on whether to fire Mari Alkatiri, who has been accused of arming a hit squad to terrorize opponents.

More than 5,000 protesters circled the capital, Dili, in colorful trucks, buses and motorcycles, calling the prime minister a terrorist and snarling traffic around the downtown government headquarters.

The noise made it impossible for members of the Fretilin party's central committee to hear each other speak and some key members were unable to reach the building, said committee member Estanislau da Silva. The meeting was rescheduled for Sunday.

"This is a very important decision we have to make and we cannot work under this sort of pressure," da Silva said.

He said the party hoped international peacekeepers who have been in East Timor since violence erupted last month would help keep demonstrators at bay Sunday.

Alkatiri is accused of forming a hit squad to kill his political opponents during weeks of street battles and gang warfare that left at least 30 people dead and sent nearly 150,000 people fleeing from their homes.

He vehemently denies the accusation.

Many East Timorese blamed the unrest on Alkatiri's decision to fire 600 disgruntled soldiers in March. The violence was the worst to hit the tiny Asian nation since it voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999, but ebbed with the arrival of a 2,700-member Australian-led peacekeeping force.

President Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader revered for helping East Timor win independence, has threatened to quit unless Fretilin dismisses Alkatiri.

The choice of losing either the president or the prime minister has prompted thousands to take to the streets of the capital in recent days.

Gusmao said Saturday he had agreed to give Fretilin more time to decide what to do with Alkatiri before carrying out his threat to quit.

Many downtown businesses remained closed and streets were largely deserted except for Alkatiri opponents and foreign troops.

The arrest of former Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato on charges of providing weapons to the self-proclaimed leader of the hit squad has fueled accusations against the prime minister.