Nearly 60 inmates escaped from an East Timor jail on Wednesday, including scores of people arrested in recent violence that wracked the tiny nation and militiamen who opposed the country's break from Indonesian rule.

Carlos Sarmento said at least 57 inmates fled the Becora Penitentiary in the capital Dili after breaking down several walls in the east wing.

Sarmento blamed the jail break on a shortage of guards, saying many never returned to their posts after violence broke out in Dili three months ago, leaving at least 30 people dead and sending 150,000 others fleeing.

"We don't have enough staff," he said.

Among those who escaped was Maj. Alfredo Reinado, a former military police chief accused of leading a group of rebel soldiers in the May violence and dozens of people arrested by international peacekeepers for illegal weapons possession.

Several pro-Indonesia militiamen sentenced in connection with 1999 riots that left nearly 1,500 people dead also escaped.

Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta convened a meeting to discuss the escape. Justice Minister Domingos Sarmento refused to comment on the breakout.

Thanks to the installation of a new government and the arrival of foreign peacekeepers, calm has been largely restored to East Timor since May, when street battles erupted between rival security forces, later spilling into gang warfare, looting and arson.

The violence was the worst to hit the country of less than 1 million people since it voted for independence from Indonesia after 24 years of often brutal rule.

Ramos-Horta said earlier this week he expected political stability to return to the country before elections scheduled for next year.

Indonesia invaded East Timor 1975 and ruled the former Portuguese colony until 1999, when the territory overwhelmingly voted for independence in a U.N.-organized referendum.

Withdrawing Indonesian troops and their militia allies destroyed much of the country's infrastructure and killed at least 1,500 people.

The United Nations voted recently to send 1,600 international police and 34 military liaison officers ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2007.