A cat-and-mouse fight in Dili's streets

Foreign forces sent to East Timor are pitted against shadowy gangs and arsonists.

A dark spiral of smoke twists into the humid tropical air as another home burns in East Timor's troubled capital, Dili. Popping and groaning under the intense heat, the corrugated iron roof eventually collapses, sending up a blizzard of sparks.

"There's not a lot we can do about that one," says Pvt. Chas Takiwa, one the New Zealand soldiers who came across the fire during a patrol of the hills and valleys on Dili's outskirts.

Without proper firefighting equipment, the New Zealand patrol, and the rest of the 2,500-strong force sent from Australia, Portugal, and Malaysia, are powerless to combat the arson attacks and gang violence which have erupted in East Timor and left up to 30 people dead and many more injured.

The communal hatreds and ethnic tensions which are fueling Dili's violence contrast with the ecstatic welcome the international forces receive everywhere they go in this ramshackle city. But despite Timorese goodwill and predeployment predictions of a rapid return to peace, the soldiers are finding their mission is entailing much more than just showing up.

The military commander of the Australian forces, Brig. Mick Slater, made a tacit admission Monday that his troops were struggling to impose control by calling for them to be replaced by a UN-led multinational police force. The Army, he said, had "achieved as much as we can expect to achieve." But it would take months to assemble a UN force, and for now it is the military that will have to bear the brunt of the crisis.

Monday, Australian and Malaysian soldiers, together with Portuguese police, used helicopters, armored personnel carriers, and tear gas to quell street battles between rival ethnic gangs in the explosive district of Comoro.

In another flashpoint, the suburb of Becora, the 166-strong New Zealand contingent is patrolling on foot and in vehicles from a deserted police station.

"Bon dia [good morning] Kiwi, you are No. 1," locals yelled as the troops from the 2nd/1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, drove through smoldering neighborhoods.

The battalion has confiscated spears, knives, machetes, and lethal homemade darts, along with the cheap disposable lighters that are used by arsonists. But catching arsonists red-handed is proving infuriatingly difficult, as the fires take just a few moments to ignite and the culprits are long gone before the troops arrive.

"As soon as we leave an area the fires start up again," said Lt. Marcus Bunn, one of the New Zealand officers.

A few miles up the road a foot patrol had detained 19 men, a rare victory in the frustrating cat-and-mouse game engaged in by soldiers as they chase looters and arsonists along back alleys and through crowded slums.

The captured men were from the western districts of East Timor and were allegedly intent on torching the homes of people from the east of the country.

"A few days ago some easterners burned their houses. Now it's payback time," says Nico da Silva, a former travel guide now working as an interpreter for the New Zealanders.

The ethnic conflict gripping the capital pitches people from the east - the Lorosae - against those from the west - the Loromonu. There is no religious aspect to this divide - both groups are overwhelmingly Catholic. They share similar languages, and intermarriage has been common for decades.

But some easterners view with suspicion the people of the west because of their proximity to Indonesia and allegations that they collaborated with Indonesian forces during the occupation from 1975 to 1999.

"The core of the resistance was always in the east," says one long-term observer, who asked not to be named. "The people of the east regard themselves as the heroes of the occupation."

Tensions between the two groups erupted into violence in April, when 600 soldiers from the east fired on a demonstration held by soldiers from the west, who were complaining that they were denied promotion in East Timor's 1,800-strong Army.

The westerners fled Dili and were soon joined by hundreds of military police, also riven by east-west tensions.

It is not just ethnic tensions that have pitched Dili into chaos and forced an estimated 100,000 people to flee their homes. Since independence, rival politicians have built up the Army and the paramilitary police force as competing power bases.

There is widespread suspicion that some within the ruling Fretilin Party are directing and exploiting the rival security groups and warring ethnic gangs to advance their own political ambitions.

"We suspect there are factions or cliques in the government who are trying to discredit the prime minister by paying criminal gangs to cause trouble and show that Dili is still in chaos," a Western military attaché says.

The theory was given credence over the weekend during a visit to Dili by Australia's foreign minister. Alexander Downer held emergency talks with East Timor's divided government as well as Australian military commanders.

But within minutes of his departure, arsonists set ablaze a nightclub on the main airport road - just as dozens of journalists were driving by, ensuring maximum attention. It was a reminder that despite the checkpoints, detentions, and patrols, shadowy players are able to launch attacks with impunity.

The nightmare scenario would be if the Army and police, currently hiding in the hills or confined to barracks, take up arms against each other again.

In a memoir published three years ago, former Australian diplomat Richard Woolcott recalls being told by a senior member of the Bush administration: "East Timor will be your Haiti." Canberra is hoping that he is mistaken.

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