In June 2005, the last remaining Australian peacekeepers left East Timor. In May 2006, clashes involving former soldiers, who were sacked in March, expanded into wider factional violence as well as looting and arson. At least 25 people are killed and about 150,000 took refuge in makeshift camps. Foreign troops were brought in to restore order but much of the violence occurred after they arrived. According to some reports 37 people had been killed in gun-battles by the time Australian-led peacekeeping force restored order. About 37,000 refugees were still living in squalid camps around the capital, Dili a year after the violence.

The Nautilus Institute reported: A major political crisis in April – May 2006 resulted in significant loss of life, personal injury and widespread destruction of property. Starting with a petition by soldiers from Timor’s army F-FDTL in January 2006, protests extended in March when 594 petitioners were dismissed from the army. A rebel group of soldiers led by Lieutenant Gastao Salsinha was later joined by Major Alfredo Reinado as the crisis erupted into armed violence in April-May. Initial joint operations by Timor’s army (F-FDTL) and police (PNTL) soon descended into armed clashes between the police, army, rebel soldiers and urban youth, with over 100 people being killed in 2006. [Source: Nautilus Institute +++]

Simon Montlake wrote in The Guardian, “Fighting between rebel soldiers and security forces loyal to the government escalated sharply, dragging East Timor to the brink of civil war and prompting the intervention of 2,200 Australia-led peacekeepers to restore order. The UN estimated that over 130,000 people have fled their homes amid fierce fighting and widespread looting and razing of parts of Dili. At least 20 people have died in the violence.[Source: Simon Montlake, The Guardian, June 16, 2006]

Associated Press reported: “The violence triggered by the March 2006 firing of 600 disgruntled soldiers — nearly half the 1,400-member army — has killed 23 people in one week in mid May and is seen as the most serious crisis East Timor has faced since it broke from Indonesian rule in 1999. The impoverished nation received millions of dollars in international aid over the last seven years, much of it focused on building up the military. After staging deadly riots in April, the sacked troops fled the seaside capital, setting up positions in the surrounding hills and threatening guerrilla war if they were not reinstated. They started ambushing soldiers in Dili in late May, sparking days of sometimes pitched gunbattles. East Timor's government asked for international help, week, saying it could not control the situation, and hundreds of Australian troops arrived. New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal have also agreed to help, with some advance forces already on the ground. [Source: Associated Press, May 27, 2006 /*/]

“The dismissed soldiers are largely from the country's west, while the military's leadership originates from the east. The renegade soldiers alleged they were discriminated against, routinely passed up for promotions and given the worst assignments. Some disillusioned youths have also apparently picked up arms, and ordinary citizens, frustrated by poverty and unemployment in the tiny nation also are taking up sides.” /*/

Reuters reported: “Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri foot-dragging over a dispute by disgruntled soldiers is said by many Timorese and diplomats to have been the cause of the trouble. Around 600 of the 1,400-strong Timorese army rebelled in April after they were dismissed for protesting over what they said was discrimination against soldiers from the west of the country. Most military leaders are said to come from the east. [Source: Reuters, May 28, 2006]

The crisis extended beyond the security forces, leading to the fall of the government headed by then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. The events of 2006 continue to impact on Timorese politics, highlighted by the February 2008 armed attacks on President Ramos Horta and Prime Minister Gusmao, and the death of Major Reinado. Many UN peacekeepers had withdrawn from Timor-Leste in late 2004, but following the crisis, Australia increased its police and military presence in Timor, a deployment which continues today as Operation Astute. +++

Foreign Troops Pour into Dili in May 2006

In late May 2006, Hercules aircraft shuttling between Darwin, Australia and Dili, brought in more than 1,300 troops to restore law and order in East Timor. Australia’s abc.net reported: “Crack commando soldiers have now lined the road to Dili Airport to ensure the steady stream of planes can continue to arrive. The first plane load of Malaysian soldiers arrived this morning. Meanwhile, sporadic fighting has continued on Dili's outskirts overnight. A United Nations police officer injured when soldiers opened fire on police yesterday has been evacuated to Darwin. [Source: abc.net, May 26, 2006]

About 250 UN staff are still holed up inside their headquarters in Dili, unable to leave because of shooting around the capital. East Timor has ordered its troops to return to their barracks outside Dili while Australian forces take over security in the capital. East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta says he is still hopeful all parties will be able to take part in a mediation this weekend. "As soon as this happens, if this happens today or tomorrow I will also be able to continue contact with them to bring the parties together by Sunday I hope for a round table chair by the President, Xanana Gusmao," he said.

The chief of the Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, says violence has eased in the capital but it is still extremely dangerous. "We see a large number of people in Timor who are armed with long barrelled weapons and there has been a lot of use of those weapons in recent days in I suppose a lot of group violence," he said. "Clearly any environment like that is dangerous."

Questions are still being asked about how East Timorese soldiers opened fire on unarmed police in Dili yesterday after a cease-fire had been mediated by the local United Nations representative. Nine policeman died and the UN has lodged a formal protest. Mr Ramos Horta says Mr Gusmao has now taken direct control of the country's security services. "He was appalled with the fight between the police and defence force and it's this emergency situation compelled him to take this stance he took which I fully support," he said."It does not mean that he is controlling the Government, he's only taken control with the security on the side of Timorese."

Militia's Torch Houses and Gangs Rampage Through the Streets of Dili

Even after the foreign troops arrived the violence continued. Associated Press reported: “Women and children ran screaming from their homes as militias torched dozens of houses in East Timor's capital amid efforts by foreign troops to stem violence. Civilian militias armed with slingshots, machetes and spears roamed the Villa Verde neighborhood in southern Dili, throwing rocks through the windows of the small, tin-roofed houses and setting them on fire. Nearby, the sound of gunfire could be heard. Hundreds of panicked residents sought shelter in a church as Australian troops arrived in tanks to try to restore order, Blackhawk helicopters hovering overhead. The number of casualtieswasn't known but ambulances were seen leaving the scene with sirens blaring. [Source: Associated Press, May 27, 2006]

In a sign of the depth of hatred dividing the Indian Ocean nation, a mob torched the house of a government minister, killing five children and an adult whose charred bodies were found. Ten unarmed police also were gunned down by soldiers as they left their headquarters in downtown Dili under U.N. escort on Thursday. Two Australian tanks moved into the Villa Verde neighborhood early Saturday as the militias torched homes, sending screaming women and children running into the streets, some clutching their belongings. Other soldiers arrived in Land Rovers and set up positions along the perimeter, with several Portuguese security forces patrolling the streets. Blackhawk helicopters hovered overhead. ''There is no solution,'' Priest Jose Antonio said at the Villa Verde church, where hundreds of people have sought shelter. Hatred between the warring factions runs long and deep, he said, ''and this is an opportunityfor revenge.'' The violence has been fueled by simmering tensions in a nation divided along east-west lines.

A day later, Reuters reported: “Frightened Timorese packed churches to pray for peace, but gangs allied to feuding police or army units continued to rampage through the capital, evading foreign peacekeeping troops and torching homes and vehicles. As night fell, smoke was still billowing above several neighborhoods in Dili as the gangs, which identify with army factions from either the east or west of this tiny nation, marked out their territories with makeshift barricades and roadblocks and took revenge on rivals. Antonio Caleres Junior, director of the city's main hospital, said 20 people had died there in the last week — 14 from gun shot wounds and six from burn injuries. He was unaware of casualties that his hospital had not treated. [Source: Reuters, May 28, 2006]

“There has been no sign that feuding factions of the armed forces have clashed since soldiers killed nine policemen, and most of the violence and clashes now taking place seems stoked by youth gangs. East Timor is one of the world's poorest nations and massive unemployment has seen the formation of dozens of gangs whose sole aims seem to be to practise martial arts and fight turf wars — regardless of the political situation. But some residents say the rebellion has turned into a protest against Alkatiri's government which they accuse of failing to deliver any economic or social development since Timor became an independent state in 2002. An election is scheduled for early next year, but some diplomats say the government cannot last that long.

A Reuters correspondent saw one gang of about 20 youths chase a man into a half built house. The correspondent says he saw the gang bludgeon the man to death with rocks and clubs. "He was setting fires," said one of the gang ringleaders. Smoke also continues to billow above several neighbourhoods in Dili, as gangs mark out their territories with makeshift barricades and road blocks.

Peacekeepers Have Trouble Reigning in the Violence in 2006

Reuters reported: “Australian troops, part of a 2,000-plus multinational deployment following the East Timor government's appeal for help, stepped up patrols in the capital but still appeared to hold back from directly engaging the rampaging gangs. They were backed by small patrols of Malaysian and New Zealand troops. "Why aren't the Australians doing anything?" asked one youth, manning a barricade on the main road leading from the airport. "It's a trickier operation than some people think," Australian Prime Minister John Howard told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Sunday. "Nobody should assume that it's just a simple walk-in-the-park military operation — it's quite challenging." The commander of the Australian troops said soldiers were concentrating on disarming factions of the military and gangs. "We will detain anyone who is suspected of having undertaken or participated in a fight," Brigadier Mick Slater told reporters. "We will be disarming everybody in Dili." [Source: Reuters, May 28, 2006]

“Hundreds of Timorese looted a World Food Program warehouse, taking huge bags of rice after disrupting an attempt to distribute supplies to women. They were ordered to drop the bags by patrolling Australian soldiers, but when the troops were called to another disturbance the looters carried on where they left off. The police force has also virtually disintegrated, but an elite Australian-trained special forces unit is believed to be loosely allied to the disgruntled soldiers.

Australian troops have stepped up patrols in the capital, but appear to be holding back from directly engaging the rampaging gangs. Some want to see the Australians take a firmer hand. "They need to crack heads to get them to stop," local Felipe Carrascalao said. The Australian troops are backed by small patrols of Malaysian and New Zealand troops. Police officers

The next day Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “Australian peacekeepers and less looting and burning occurred than in previous days. Two Australian Navy ships were anchored offshore and were easily visible to terrified residents who sought reassurance after weeks of battling between factions of East Timor's security forces. In the last several days, there has also been sustained looting and burning by gangs. Almost all of the 800 East Timorese soldiers who remained loyal to the government after the army split in two several months ago were pushed back to their barracks outside the city on Saturday by Australian forces, Australian officials said. About 600 soldiers who had defected appeared to be lying low in the hills above the city. Western officials said the East Timorese foreign minister, José Ramos-Horta, had persuaded the leader of the rebel soldiers, Maj. Alfredo Reinado, to stop threatening government troops. But an intense level of fear still pervaded most corners of the city on Sunday as stories persisted of ethnic-based communal violence pitting people from the western part of East Timor against those from the east. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, May 29, 2006]

The day after that Associated Press reported: “Mobs torched houses and ransacked government offices, including that of the attorney-general where they succeeded in breaking into the Serious Crimes Unit. Files involving all of the most prominent Indonesian defendants in the 1999 massacres that followed the East Timor's bloody vote for independence, including former Gen. Wiranto, were stolen, said Attorney General Longuinhos Monteiro. Asked whether they had been specifically targeted in the looting, he replied: "We don't know". Aid workers expressed frustration at the insecurity despite the presence of more than 1,300 foreign troops from Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia after scuffles also broke out at a warehouse being used as a food distribution centre. Justice Minister Domingos Sarmento said a contingent of 120 paramilitary police from Portugal would help bolster the foreign force. Sporadic fighting was reported in some parts of the city and ambulances were seen ferrying injured people to a hospital. It was not clear how many had been hurt. Much of the antagonism on the streets revolves around accusations, often unfounded, that one person or another harbours sympathies for Indonesia, which pulled out of East Timor after its people voted overwhelming for independence in 1999. [Source: Associated Press May, 30, 2006]

Civilians Caught in the Crossfire of the East Timor Violence in 2006

Reporting Dili, Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “For a month, Marcos de Jesus, his wife and seven children have been too afraid to go home, just 700 yards down a trail of mango and frangipani trees from the schoolhouse veranda where they are camping. The trauma of a prolonged shootout between soldiers and armed demonstrators outside his front door in April is still etched on his tense face and frightened eyes. More than 100 houses were set on fire in his neighborhood as residents scattered, some to the hills behind this nervous city, some as close as the Roman Catholic primary school behind Mr. de Jesus' back fence. [Source:Jane Perlez, New York Times, May 29, 2006 \~]

"We don't want to take any risks — we are scared anything can happen at any time," said Mr. de Jesus, a driver for a foreign aid group, as his wife, Josefina, cleaned their makeshift kitchen on the veranda's concrete floor. "We won't go back until we hear from the government what is going on," he said. The government, he added, seemed incapable of explaining the chaos surrounding him. But one thing is clear: those who have fled are not going home until the menacing mood lifts. Some of them say they feel more afraid now than in 1999, when more than 1,000 people were killed after the Indonesian military, which occupied East Timor for 23 years, encouraged local militias to attack supporters of a referendum on independence. \~\

"In 1999, when the Indonesian Army was shooting, we could go to the church for safety," Mr. de Jesus said. In 1999, the lines were clearer among the Indonesian military, the militia backed by the Indonesians, and the East Timorese guerrillas, he said. "This time there are many groups, we don't know who is who." \~\

Many civilians sought refuge in Dili churches. Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times, “ At the Dom Bosco Roman Catholic College, priests wearing white robes in the hope they would protect them in the melee of gang attacks, drove several truckloads of men, women and children into the makeshift refugee camp set up on the campus. They were running rescue missions of residents who had been surrounded by armed street gangs. The gangs appeared to be made up of angry unemployed youths and others settling old political scores. The priests had rescued the group from Imutin, a district on the route to the airport. Several gangs with machetes and homemade rifles commonly used here for fishing were surrounded and disarmed there by Australian soldiers. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, May 29, 2006 \~]

"We must be identifiable — otherwise they will be hacking and burning them alive," said the Rev. Lalo Lebron, of the gangs. "Yesterday we were in a part of the city where people from the east were inside — women and children — and outside people from the west were saying, 'Kill them, burn them.' " "These people were living in houses close to houses being burned," Father Lebron continued, as the men among the new arrivals were relived of their weapons. "Maybe the sons and husbands are involved," Father Lebron said. "Everyone says: 'We have to take revenge. We were attacked first.' " \~\

Gusmao Takes over Security in East Timor

After the peacekeepers started to bring some stability to Dili, East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao said he was taking "sole responsibility" for the country's national security in a bid to end the unrest. Associated Press reported: “The announcement came shortly after an emergency cabinet meeting to deal with a crisis. Gusmao released a statement saying he would assume "sole responsibility" for defence and national security in his capacity as armed forces' commander in chief, to "prevent violence and avoid further fatalities". The emergency measures would take effect immediately and be valid for 30 days. [Source: Associated Press, May 30, 2006 /*]

Jose Ramos Horta, the country's Nobel peace prize-winning Foreign Minister, acknowledged that his government had "failed miserably" to prevent the unrest. He directed the blame toward Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri. "In some areas, particularly in political dialogue in embracing everybody, in resolving problems as they arise, well, the government has failed miserably," Ramos Horta told the Nine Network. /*\

A week after that East Timor's parliament convened to discuss the violence amid clashes between stone-throwing and building-burning gangs in Dili. Al Jazeera reported:”The parliament met in the absence of some deputies who were unable to attend because of safety concerns or lack of transport. At least 45 deputies from the 88-seat parliament met in an attempt to revive the workings of a government that has been virtually paralysed by factional rifts and security concerns in Dili. Deputies said some colleagues could not attend Monday's session because they were holed up in compounds and Francisco Guterres, the parliament speaker and a leader of the ruling Fretilin party, said authorities should investigate. "We have to find out what happened and where they are," Guterres said. [Source: Al Jazeera, June 5, 2006 +]

In June 2006, “Rebel soldiers in East Timor began handing over their weapons to Australian peacekeepers.Simon Montlake wrote in The Guardian, “In a ceremony in a hillside camp outside the capital, Dili, rebel commander Lieutenant Alfredo Reinado surrendered his M-16 rifle to Australian troops and instructed his followers to follow suit. Around a dozen guns were handed in, which Australian officials say will be registered and sealed in metal containers. Armed rebels led by hundreds of soldiers who were dismissed in March after a mutiny have dug in at two bases outside Dili. [Source: Simon Montlake, The Guardian, June 16, 2006]

“President Xanana Gusmao, a former resistance leader to whom the rebel soldiers have pledged loyalty, brokered the surrender of the first batch of weapons, seen as a key step towards a peace settlement. Australian commander Brigadier Mick Slater said full disarmament could take several days and was unlikely to include all the looted weapons, as some may be buried in secret caches. But he said the presence of multinational troops around the rebel bases would allow their leaders to begin peace talks with the government and defuse the crisis. "Provided they stay in these areas, they will receive the full protection of the international force to make sure that no one is aggressive toward them," Brig Slater said. "This will enable them to confidently enter into negotiations with the president and other members of the government." [Ibid]

Gusmao Faces Off Against Prime Minister Alkatiri

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Dili to support President Gusmao in his confrontation with East Timor prime minister, who has refused the president's demand to step down. Reuters reported: “In an impassioned speech after talks failed to persuade Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri to quit, the popular Gusmao had said he would resign if Alkatiri did not take responsibility for weeks of arson attacks and killings. That prompted several prominent East Timor leaders to visit the president on Friday and urge him to stay in office, and by late afternoon some 4,000 mostly young male Gusmao supporters were demonstrating in front of Dili's main government building demanding Alkatiri's departure. They blame Alkatiri for weeks of violence. [Source: Reuters, June 23, 2006 \^/]

“The crowds were peaceful and well-organised, and had been brought into Dili by bus and truck from across East Timor. Augusto Junior, a spokesman for the recently organised National Front for Justice and Peace, said the protesters' aim was to get Alkatiri to resign and Gusmao to dissolve parliament. "We have mobilised across the country. You can see we represent all groups. We are not Fretilin or non-Fretilin," he said, referring to Alkatri's party which dominates parliament. In his broadcast to the nation on Thursday evening, Gusmao said if Alkatiri and Fretilin failed to take responsibility for the crisis, "I will send a letter to the national parliament to inform them that I will resign". "I am ashamed of the bad deeds that the government is doing to the people," Gusmao said. \^/

“A spokesman from the prime minister's office said the speech was seen by the Fretilin leadership as a ploy. "What he really means is, he's appealing to the people to demand that he stay on as president and that they really destroy Fretilin," said the spokesman, who declined to be identified. The protesters displayed banners and posters of Gusmao and others saying "Alkatiri must go". One showed Alkatiri's head superimposed on the body of a goat with a noose around its neck.” \^/

Alkatiri Resigns as East Timor’s Prime Minister

In June 2006, Mari Alkatiri resigned his position as East Timor’s prime minister. Lindsay Murdoch wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald, “Dancing spilled into the streets of Dili today as Alkatiri announced his resignation, in a move that is set to ease tensions in the troubled nation. Mr Alkatiri made the announcement during a hastily convened press conference from the balcony of his Dili home today, where he said he had stood down to stop Xanana Gusmao from resigning as President. Looking tense and grim, Mr Alkatiri read a very brief statement in English, Portuguese and Tetum, the local language before walking back inside. [Source: Lindsay Murdoch, Sydney Morning Herald, June 26, 2006 ||]

“Mr Alkatiri said he would co-operate with the President in forming an interim government. He said he was resigning because all Timorese had a right to live in peace and tranquility. State-run television in Dili reported that six other cabinet ministers had resigned as well. In Dili, thousands of protesters, who have been demonstrating every day for the past week calling for Mr Alkatiri to quit, cheered and sounded car horns as news spread. ||

“Right up until time of Mr Alkatiri's resignation, hundreds of protesters had been circling the city in trucks calling for him to stand down. Observers say his announcement will almost certainly head off any further protests. Foreign Ministers Jose Ramos Horta resigned the previous night, saying he could no longer work with Mr Alkatiri, threatening to plunge the nation into deeper political turmoil. Mr Ramos Horta, who has been trying to broker a settlement between the ruling Fretilin party and Mr Gusmao, told the President that he could no longer work in a government led by Mr Alkatiri. ||

“The resignation of Mr Ramos Horta, who won the Nobel peace prize in 1996 for his non-violent resistance to Indonesian rule, had fuelled fears that the Government would unravel. "I decided to resign from the Government until a new government is established," he said yesterday through his spokesman. "I am ready to serve this nation in whatever position." Mr Ramos Horta's resignation came after it emerged yesterday that his former wife, Ana Pessoa, a close ally of the Prime Minister, had become the frontrunner to replace Mr Alkatiri. ||

“Members of the ruling Fretilin party's central committee gathered in a specially convened meeting the previous night to discuss Mr Gusmao's demand that Mr Alkatiri resign or be sacked. The committee passed a resolution appealing for both Mr Alkatiri and Mr Gusmao to stay in their posts. During the meeting, Mr Alkatiri said he would offer to resign if that was the wish of the 72-member committee, but Fretilin spokesman Estanislal da Silva said members rejected the offer and urged that Fretilin urgently talk to Mr Gusmao. ||

Two days later, AFP reported: “Stone-throwing youths attacked refugee camps in East Timor, raising tensions as thousands of supporters of ex-premier Mari Alkatiri camped outside the capital Dili. A number of huts were torched throughout the city and multinational troops stood between rival factions in the latest outbreak of violence. The attacks appeared to have been prompted by television pictures of thousands of defiant supporters of Alkatiri, who resigned Monday, at a rally just outside the capital demanding that they march on Dili. [Source: AFP, June 28, 2006 ^=^]

Alkatiri Linked to a Hit Squad Set Up to Eliminate Rivals

Alkatiri's position became impossible after Prosecutor-General Longinhos Monteiro confirmed that former interior minister Rogerio Lobato had implicated him in the setting up of an alleged secret hit squad to eliminate political rivals. After his resignation, Alkatiri was questioned by the prosecutor-general's office over the hit squad allegations. AFP reported: “Dr Alkatiri, who did not make any comment to the media, was grilled for about two hours. Heavy security surrounding the office during his interview, with six tanks parked on the streets outside and about 20 Australian troops guarding him. About 50 demonstrators, including Opposition party members, rallied outside the office carrying banners and yelling in English,"Alkatiri is a traitor! Alkatiri is a dictator! Alkatiri is a predator!" [Source: AFP, July 20, 2006 ***]

“Dr Alkatiri was summonsed for questioning in connection with the case late a month before but initially refused to turn up. He had claimed he had immunity as a Member of Parliament and also wanted to wait for his lawyers to return from abroad. But earlier this month prosecutor-general Longuinhos Monteiro said he had ordered the former leader to be questioned as a suspect. His sacked interior minister and close ally Rogerio Lobato faces criminal charges over distributing the weapons to civilians.” ***

A few weeks earlier the BBC reported: “The leader of a hit squad allegedly armed on the orders of East Timor's former prime minister has surrendered his weapons to the government. Vincente da Concecao and his men handed in 14 weapons at a ceremony witnessed by the new premier, Mr Alkatiri is accused of ordering former Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato to give weapons to Mr da Concecao and his men, so they could form a hit squad and kill his political rivals. Mr Lobato already faces charges over distributing the arms. [Source: BBC, July 11, 2006]

In March 2007, an East Timor court sentenced Lobato to seven and a half years in jail for giving weapons to civilians to kill government opponents during the violence in 2006. Reuters reported: “A panel of three judges found Rogerio Lobato guilty on manslaughter and firearms charges. Prosecutors said Lobato had distributed police uniforms, weapons and ammunition to a group of civilians led by renegade army major Alfredo Reinado. “Prosecutors dropped similar charges against former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri because of lack of evidence. [Source: Reuters, March 7, 2007 ~]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Northern Illinois University, Department of Anthropology and Center for Southeast Asian Studies, May 2005 Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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