East Timor Airport Closed Amid Escalating Violence

Rival gangs battled with guns and machetes Wednesday near East Timor's capital, killing two people, wounding about a dozen and forcing the closure of the troubled nation's international airport, officials and witnesses said.

Australian-led peacekeepers intervened to quell the violence in which at least a dozen houses were set ablaze and three foreigners were hurt, including two Portuguese police officers and an Australian civilian, said U.N. spokesman Adrian Edwards.

Isolated violence continued throughout the day near the airport and attempts to reopen it were abandoned until Thursday, he said.

"The situation was not calm, but at least it's heading in that direction," he said.

East Timor has been plagued by instability since violence killed 33 people and drove 155,000 from their homes in April and May, following the dismissal by the government of one third of the military.

Foreign peacekeepers took over national security, but unrest has continued as the country remains split over attitudes toward the more than two decades of Indonesian occupation that ended in 1999.

The most recent violence — in which four have died and 50 were wounded — began Sunday when two men were stabbed to death near a church during evening prayers, five days after the release of a United Nations report on the causes of the conflict earlier this year. The special U.N. commission largely blamed the government of former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, saying two members of his Cabinet allegedly armed civilian militias.

In fighting Tuesday and Wednesday, two men were shot and killed and at least 12 were wounded by machetes and stone-throwing in the Comoro neighborhood, said Antonio Caleres, director of East Timor's main hospital.

Romaldo da Silva, director of East Timor's Civil Aviation Authority, said the airport would be closed until security was restored. Fighting on the main road connecting downtown Dili and the airport had cut off all traffic, he said.

International peacekeepers fired rubber bullets at groups of battling youths Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, said an Associated Press reporter at the scene. The peacekeepers patrolled the city in Black Hawk helicopters as ambulances shuttled the wounded to a hospital, the reporter said.

The Australian Defense Force said one of its soldiers, part of the foreign peacekeeping mission, had fired shots in self-defense at an armed man who approached one of its positions at the airport. The man fled and his condition was unknown.