Violence Erupts in East Timor Due to Ousted Prime Minister

Gangs of young men hurled rocks at a camp housing refugees and torched buildings in East Timor's capital Wednesday as violence erupted between supporters and opponents of the recently ousted prime minister.

Australian peacekeepers forced 100 youths away from the camp, which houses hundreds of people who fled clashes last month. The attackers claimed armed supporters of ousted Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri were inside.

Sporadic gun shots rang out, and 20 houses and a half dozen shops torched elsewhere, sending black clouds of smoke rising over the capital, Dili.

Alkatiri appeared on national television Tuesday — one day after he resigned under pressure from street protesters and President Xanana Gusmao — urging 2,000 supporters gathered on Dili's outskirts to descend on the city in coming days.

The former premier has been summoned for questioning on allegations that he formed political hit squads, accusations he denies. He accused his opponents of being behind two months of unrest that left at least 30 people dead and sent nearly 150,000 people fleeing their homes.

"They destroyed Dili town, burned, looted and killed our people, and then they accuse me of being a terrorist, communist and a killer," he said in his first public comments since stepping down.

Alkatiri's opponents say he provoked the violence by firing 600 disgruntled soldiers in March. Clashes between the dissident and loyalist soldiers gave way to broader street violence — the worst unrest since East Timor's bloody break from Indonesia in 1999.

Many of the street fighters Wednesday said they either came from the east — Alkatiri's power base — or the west, a stronghold of Gusmao and home to many of the fired soldiers.

Some young men were simply taking advantage of the chaos to settle old scores or vent frustration with the leaders of East Timor, which remains Asia's poorest nation despite large petroleum reserves.

Young men driving past refugee camps housing mostly easterners yelled "Get out of Dili!" and claimed there were weapons hidden inside.

"They are all Alkatiri's supporters," said Freddy, 15. "They cause too many problems."

Members of a 2,700 peacekeeping mission responded quickly to the flare-ups. Australian and Portuguese police rushed to the scene of blazes and clashes, and helicopters patrolled overhead as sirens blared.

It was the worst outbreak of violence in recent weeks, but there were no reports of injuries.

The president's wife, Kirsty Gusmao, accused Alkatiri of exacerbating tensions through his "inflammatory" speech.

"I think that really had a very, very unnerving effect," she told Australia's ABC Radio.

Though Alkatiri said he stepped down to help restore order, TV footage of his remarks rallied supporters and angered opponents, who threw rocks at the national television station and burned down several homes of leaders of his ruling Fretilin party.

East Timor's political future remained uncertain.

Gusmao, who enjoys wide popular support for leading the country's armed struggle against 24 years of Indonesian rule, said Tuesday he would take "immediate steps toward forming a new government." Another option, he said, was dissolving parliament and holding early elections.

Jose Ramos-Horta, the Nobel peace prize-winning foreign minister, is one of several possible candidates for prime minister.