05/30/2006, 00.00
EAST TIMOR
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East Timorese president taking over national security and defence

Embattled PM agrees to the decision after two-day talks by cabinet. Foreign troops are unable to stop armed gangs that are spreading fear in Dili. The population is expecting the worst.

Dili (AsiaNews) – East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao has taken control of the country's national security and defence in a bid to end mounting violence and stop armed gangs roaming the streets of Dili. Mr Gusmao made the announcement himself today in a press conference.

Government leaders had been meeting since yesterday to find ways to defuse the unrest that for the past week has left the capital's residents terrified in spite of the presence of foreign troops.

Mr Gusmao said the decision was taken in close collaboration with Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and the speaker of the parliament.

The president will also assume sole charge of coordination with the 2,500-strong Australian peacekeeping force that arrived a week ago to quell the unrest.

Prime Minister Alkatiri on Saturday had accused the president of trying to foment a coup only to retract his statement spme time later.

The prime minister is unpopular with the population which blames him for the country's poverty and unemployment. Other members of the government blame Mr Alkatiri for failing to stop the violence, which was triggered by the government's mishandling of a crisis within the army in March. The Catholic Church has also come out against him.

The crisis began when clashes broke out between loyalist troops and troops sacked by the government in the hills around Dili.

After four days, gangs drawn from rival ethnic groups began clashing, burning homes and looting stores.

At the same time, rumours started to circulate suggesting that the unrest was politically motivated.

The Attorney-General reported today that his offices was looted, some of the stolen files relating to Indonesia's bloody pullout from East Timor, after a 1999 referendum. Pro-Indonesian militias have been accused of orchestrating the violence, which left more than 1,000 people dead.

Looting has left tens of thousands of residents homeless and aid agencies warn of a looming humanitarian crisis.

Today's worst unrest came when thousands of desperate people, now that basic necessities are running out, descended on government warehouses where rice was being handed out.

In the midst of the situation, about 700 people have found refuge in Dili's Jesuit House. "They are all terrified," a priest told AsiaNews. "We all fear the worst."

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