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Anti-Govt demos continue as police deadline expires

Lusa - May 3, 2005

Dili – The East Timorese capital braced Tuesday for the possibility of clashes between police and anti-government Catholic demonstrators, but a police deadline for the end of street protests ran down without any confrontation.

As the unauthorized demonstrations continued into the night Tuesday, signs mounted that a negotiated settlement might still be found for the fortnight of protests.

President Xanana Gusmao's spokesman, Agio Pereira, told Lusa that contested Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri had responded positively to a presidential initiative to reconsider plans to demote religion classes in public schools and that Gusmao was awaiting a response from the country's two Catholic bishops.

Meanwhile, police Chief Superintendent Paulo Martins met with UN officials, foreign diplomats and government officials, giving assurances that police forces did not plan to move against the demonstrators, despite the imminent expiration of the deadline for an end to the 15 days of anti-government protests.

"Neither the government nor the police are interested in confrontation with the demonstrators", a senior police officer told Lusa, asking to remain unidentified.

"We will do everything to avoid confrontation", the officer added, lamenting "the provocative attitudes" of "some priest" who, he said, wanted "something to go wrong" in order to blame the government and police.

Many business and offices in central Dili remained closed throughout Tuesday as crowds of anti-government Catholic protesters defied the police-ordered deadline to end the anti-government demonstrations that authorities label as "illegal".

The spokesman for Dili's Catholic Church diocese, Vicar-General Apolinario Guterres, told Lusa Tuesday morning that the continuous protests, involving several thousand people, would "end when it has to end and not because of police ultimatums".

The General Command of Dili's police ordered the church Monday to "end the demonstration Tuesday" or face police action.

Most shops, restaurants, offices and banks located near the government's headquarters, the focus of the fortnight-old demonstrations, closed Tuesday, as police cut traffic, set up barbed- wire barriers and reinforced the number of officers in the zone.

United Nations agencies and the World Bank also closed their offices and an official told Lusa UN personnel had been advised to stay clear of the tense downtown area.

The demonstrators also appeared to reorder their ranks, placing a large number of mostly youthful protest marshals at the front of the crowd, dotted with images of the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, to face the police cordon.

Father Guterres' reiteration to Lusa that the demonstrations, centered on demands for the ouster of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, would continue in defiance of the police deadline followed a similar declaration Monday.

In a letter responding to the police ultimatum, the spokesman for Bishop Alberto Ricardo da Silva informed the General Command that the protests would only be called off when the demonstrators' demands were "met in a democratic manner".

The unauthorized demonstrations, which have involved as many as 8,000 people, many trucked into Dili from the interior, began April 19, ostensibly to oppose government plans to demote religion classes in public schools to the status of an optional subject.

Despite efforts at appeasement from Alkatiri and attempts by President Xanana Gusmao to mediate a solution last week, the demands escalated into an all-out challenge to the government, with insistent calls for the prime minister's resignation.

The demonstrations around the Government Palace have been peaceful, marred only by two incidents overnight Sunday in which three Portuguese who drove up close to the demonstrators were roughed up by protest marshals.