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Violence looms as East Timor heads for vote

The threat of further violence hangs over East Timor as it heads for an election on April 9.

world Updated: Apr 06, 2007 12:21 IST
Reuters

The threat of further violence hangs over East Timor as it heads for an election on Monday that outgoing President Xanana Gusmao says is a chance to demonstrate that his young nation is not a failed state.

Supporters of rival candidates clashed during campaigning this week, injuring more than 30 people and prompting international troops to fire tear gas and warning shots.

Just over half a million voters will pick the new president, less than a year after an army rebellion put down by foreign troops.

"This election is very important in the context of the crisis, that we are not a failed state," Gusmao, a charismatic independence hero, said this week.

Eight candidates are running, including interim Prime Minister Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel peace prize winner who spearheaded an overseas campaign for his country's independence from Indonesia in 2002.

If no one wins more than half of the vote, a run-off will be held.

Gusmao, an ally of Ramos-Horta, is not running for re-election but plans to seek the more powerful post of prime minister in separate parliamentary elections later this year.

A UN official said organizing a free and peaceful election was not an easy task for a fledgling nation ravaged by conflict. Previous votes have been organized by international agencies.

Around 3,000 international troops and police will go on patrol to safeguard the elections, the forces' commander Mal Rerden said, while about 200 international observers are monitoring the voting.

Some of the 700 polling stations are so remote the ballot papers will be delivered on horses.

East Timor's presidential post is largely ceremonial in a parliamentary government but many hope the winner will unite a nation beset by regional rivalry, rebellious security forces and disillusionment among citizens five years after the joyous celebrations of independence.

"East Timorese hope that this election will put an end to the crisis that has divided the nation and whoever wins will be accepted by the people," Julio Thomas, a political analyst from the National University of Timor Leste, said.

Pro-Jakarta militiamen went on a violent rampage following a 1999 vote for independence, killing about 1,000 people and destroying much of the territory's infrastructure.

East Timor again descended into chaos last May after the government sacked 600 rebellious soldiers.

More than 30 people were killed and 100,000 fled their homes, until the government asked foreign troops to quell the unrest.

Fears of more violence have been heightened by this week's clashes, which took place despite patrols by international police and troops in the capital, Dili.

UN mission chief Atul Khare said at least 15 incidents of violence took place during the two-week campaign but they were not "extremely serious".

President Gusmao has blamed the clashes on the Fretilin Party of ousted Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, accusing its leaders of allowing supporters to provoke violence.

Fretilin's candidate, Francisco Guterres, is a front-runner in the elections.

The party, which led resistance against Indonesian rule, is popular among East Timorese despite accusations of Alkatiri's involvement in last year's violence, which cost him the premiership.

The former Portuguese colony has the lowest per-capita gross domestic product in the world, at only $400, according to the United Nations.

Gusmao wants to unlock $1 billion in East Timor's oil revenue fund sitting in a US bank, arguing that it is ironic that his people are living in misery while the money is being kept as the country saves for its future.

First Published: Apr 06, 2007 12:17 IST