Foreign Troops Arrive in East Timor Amid Rebellion by Ex-Soldiers

Fierce gunbattles raged in East Timor's capital Thursday, killing at least three people and wounding more than a dozen, as international troops arrived in the tiny nation to help it quell a rebellion by disgruntled ex-soldiers.

A South Korean bystander was shot in the neck and rushed to a hospital, Yonhap news agency said, as dozens of foreigners fled the country on the third day of fighting between soldiers loyal to the government and recently dismissed troops.

CountryWatch: East Timor

Firefights erupted in several areas around the capital — including near President Xanana Gusmao's office and the U.N. compound. Homes and business were torched, with plumes of smoke rising over virtually deserted streets.

The first international peacekeepers arrived in an Australian Royal Air Force plane, welcomed by hundreds of East Timorese seeking refuge at the airport who clapped, cried and shouted "Thank God!"

The Australian troops in full combat gear immediately fanned out across the airport on the outskirts of the capital, taking up positions in the grass.

Soldiers and police from New Zealand, Portugal and Malaysia have also said they would help.

East Timor, the world's youngest nation, has been plagued by unrest since March when more than 40 percent of its armed forces were fired after going on strike to protest alleged discrimination in the military.

Some hard-liners fled the capital last month after participating in deadly riots, bunkering down in surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla warfare if they were not reinstated.

Two former soldiers and an army captain have been killed since late Wednesday, said the military and Lt. Gastao Salsinha, a spokesman for the ex-soldiers. Fourteen ex-soldiers were wounded, Salsinha said.

One soldier and one of the ex-soldiers died in gunbattles Tuesday.

The fighting — the worst to hit East Timor since the violence surrounding its bloody break with Indonesia in 1999 — has prompted the fledgling nation's government to ask for international troops.

"We can't control the situation," said Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta, adding that his country needed help disarming "renegade troops and police rebelling against the state."

Australia, which led a U.N.-military force into East Timor after Indonesian troops and their militia proxies went on a rampage six years ago, killing 1,500 people, has offered 1,300 troops, ships, helicopters and armored personnel carriers.

The first batch, nearly 100 commandos, arrived Thursday to help secure Dili's airport.

"It's our expectation that this will ensure that the airport remains open and functioning normally," Australian Prime Minister John Howard said in Canberra.

New Zealand said 60 of its police and soldiers were on their way. Portugal — the tiny nation's former colonizer — also agreed to send forces as did Malaysia.

Preparing for the worst, dozens of foreigners were fleeing East Timor, including 40 Australian Embassy staff and their families. The U.S. Embassy also ordered the evacuation of all nonessential personal and advised Americans in the country to leave.

"I feel horrible, like a rat deserting a sinking ship," said Australian Margaret Hall, who arrived in the country several months ago with an organization that provides maternal and child health care.

"But I'm confident we'll be back," she said as she waited for a flight to Queensland, Australia, with her husband. "The arrival of Australian and New Zealand troops ... will hopefully find a fair way out for everybody."

Meanwhile, the commander of the renegade forces — whom East Timor's top military chief wants captured dead or alive — said bringing in peacekeepers was the only way to prevent an outbreak of civil war.

"This is the only solution," Maj. Alfredo Reinado, commander of the breakaway force, said in an interview with the British Broadcasting Corp.

"There is no other way, or it will be war forever. The government has taken too long. It is not capable of resolving this," he said.

At the heart of the conflict are the former soldiers' claims they were being discriminated against because they came from the west of the small country, while the military leadership originates from the east.

Indonesia ruled East Timor with an iron fist for 24 years. Human rights groups say as many as 200,000 were killed under its occupation.