Dili (AsiaNews) East Timor rebel soldiers, who had camped out in the hills around Dili, surrendered the first of their weapons to Australian peacekeepers today, beginning a process deemed vital to ending bloody unrest that started in April and left at least 30 people dead. But many in the country doubt this will end clashes.
Australian Army Brigadier Mick Slater, commander of the 2,000-strong peacekeeping force charged with restoring order to East Timor, and former Lt Cmdr Alfredo Reinado, head of the rebel group, made the announcement today.
The rebels, who have called for the resignation of current Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri whom they blame for the crisis, have agreed to disarm after receiving an official request from President Xanana Gusmao.
Despite weeks of pressures from political adversaries and civilian groups, the prime minister has instead refused to step down.
The crisis broke out in March when Alkatiri fired 600 soldiers who were on "strike" claiming ethnic discrimination.
Rebel soldiers then clashed on the outskirts of Dili with troops who had remained loyal to the government. Rival armed gangs ended up taking over the city now without any protective security force.
The rebels, camped in the hills around the capital, today gave up 12 fully automatic rifles, four pistols and an unknown amount of ammunition.
The weapons were to be stored in a large steel shipping container and guarded by Australian peacekeepers who have the only key to the padlock protecting the door.
Brigadier Slater said he expected rebels to hand over 45 to 50 weapons in the coming days.
It is hoped the disarmament will create an atmosphere conducive to talks between the feuding parties. But local observers warn against viewing the weapons handover as guarantee for future peace because there are still too many of them in circulation.
Slater himself acknowledged that "many more weapons are likely remain hidden in the hills for many, many years to come".
Dili residents, 100,000 of whom are still displaced, still do not feel sufficiently safe to go home.