Australian-led peacekeepers hunt for rebels in East Timor

Questions about new nation's security and the effectiveness of international peacekeepers surface after two recent assassination attempts.

An Australian-led peacekeeping force began hunting Thursday for rebel soldiers suspected in assassination attempts on East Timor's president and prime minister, both of whom were attacked Monday. The attempts on the lives of President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao highlight the nation-building challenges faced by East Timor, Asia's newest country.

Soldiers, helicopters, and armored vehicles have been searching the scrub outside the capital, Dili, for the suspects, the BBC reported. Australian doctors said Mr. Ramos-Horta, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for campaigning against Indonesia's occupation, was stable, recovering from gunshot wounds. But he remains in serious condition. Ramos-Horta was attacked by about 10 men near his home as he returned from a morning walk, officials said. His guards fired back, killing rebel leader Alfredo Reinado and one of his followers. Mr. Gusmao was unhurt in a separate attack Monday.

The Associated Press reports that East Timor has extended a state of emergency imposed after the shooting. Gusmao asked parliament for the 10-day extension, saying it was "in the interests of the people," so they could, "live in peace and normalcy." Lawmakers agreed to the emergency order, which bans demonstrations, gives police extended powers, and imposes a nighttime curfew. A United Nations force has been in East Timor since a wave of street violence in mid-2006.

East Timor's neighbors, Australia, Japan, and Indonesia, have been increasingly concerned about the stability of the six-year-old nation. Civil war followed Portugal's abrupt decolonization in 1975 and caused a flood of refugees to cross the border into Indonesia, giving it the pretext to begin an invasion and a 24-year occupation. In 1999, East Timor voted to break from Indonesia in a UN-sponsored plebiscite, and the country has been under UN tutelage ever since.

In the wake of this week's attacks, Australia has pledged to bolster its military deployment and Japan has considered sending its coast guard personnel, reports Australia's The Age. That comes amid questions about the UN, the international military force, and East Timorese government's lapse in security, such as why a rebel leader and his gang were allowed to roam the country for months, reports The New York Times.

Mr. Reinado's supporters, involved in the 2006 unrest, are thought to have carried out Monday's attacks. Reinado, a former military officer, had been on the run with a group of followers for almost two years. In 2006, foreign media blamed Reinado for sparking the wave of violence two years ago after he and his supporters deserted the Army, triggering clashes that killed 37 people and led to the collapse of East Timor's postindependence government. Reinado was charged with murder over the events, but he retained his folk-hero status among some of East Timor's unemployed and disenchanted youth.

At his funeral in Dili this week, hundreds of supporters gathered, trying to make sense of the recent attacks, The Australian reports.

Observers in East Timor are also questioning the lapse in security that led to the attack. The Australian said it had received a latter from the Australian Commander of the International Stabilization Force (ISF) Brigadier John Hutcheson to Reinado's lawyer, Benny Benevides, assuring him of the rebel leader's safety. "Your client is hereby assured that, subject to his complying with any preagreed arrangements during the dialogue period, your client's movements will not be interfered with," the letter said.

Brigadier Hutcheson wrote that the stabilization force was obliged to detain anyone seen carrying an unauthorized weapon, but it seemed Reinado had been granted an exception, "despite the fact he was a prison escapee facing murder charges."

Bloomberg also reports Australia and East Timor had been probing a rebel bid to assassinate the two leaders, quoting East Timor's Army chief as questioning how guerrillas evaded Australian-led peacekeepers.

"We are not jumping to conclusions, we are very carefully, as is the East Timorese government, working through the facts as they emerge," Australia's Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said.

East Timor's Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak had said he was "staggered" at the "lack of capacity" of international forces to prevent armed men entering Dili to try to kill the two leaders.

The Associated Press reports that East Timorese Attorney General Longuinhos Monteiro said prosecutors would soon issue arrest warrants for 18 suspects in the attacks. He said the evidence against the men was strong, but did not give any names.

Some analysts expect Reinado's supporters to stage violent demonstrations. So far, however, the country has been mostly calm since the attacks. Australian soldiers on Wednesday searched cars for weapons at checkpoints and armored UN vehicles guarded top politicians.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was to fly to East Timor after pledging to boost Australia's military presence in response to Monday's failed coup. Mr. Rudd said he was shocked and disturbed by the events in Dili.

Rudd said the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) have secured key buildings and deployed more broadly throughout Dili and increased their presence in East Timor's districts. UN forces, including Australian troops, which have been in East Timor since 2006, following the violence between rebel forces and East Timorese police.

Ramos-Horta has waived an arrest warrant for Reinado, deciding instead to seek peaceful negotiations with him.

The UN and East Timorese police have begun a joint investigation and the commander of East Timor's defense force has called for the appointment of a panel of inquiry.

The Asia Times Online says many East Timorese were opposed to Gusmao's decision to call in Australian troops and to hunt down Reinado, saying many would likely take umbrage at the government's decision to request more Australian troops in reaction to Monday's assassination attempt.

The deployment of more Australian troops poses a danger to the standing of East Timorese politicians in general and the Ramos-Horta government. Such a deployment would mean East Timor would have to rely on foreign forces to protect itself.

Hugh White, a former deputy secretary of the Australian Defense Department and professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University tells The New York Times that the international military commitment increasingly looked as if it had no exit strategy.

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