Mark Dodd – Armed East Timorese police were last night poised to break up a huge church-backed anti-government protest in Dili, the most serious challenge yet to the authority of the fledgling state.
Police and security forces yesterday sealed off parts of the city, erecting razor-wire cordons around the main government offices and parliament buildings in central Dili.
A threat to use teargas to disperse about 10,000 demonstrators by mid-afternoon yesterday was postponed until this morning, just 16 days before the third anniversary of the nation's independence.
Unconfirmed but reliable reports from Dili referred to dissent within the Government of Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri on how to deal with the protest, which began with the backing of the Catholic Church more than two weeks ago.
A Portuguese UN employee was injured after the vehicle he was driving was attacked by protesters, and six Timorese suspected of being pro-government Fretilin spies are alleged to have been detained by the demonstrators.
"It seems anyone with a beef against the Government is joining in," said a senior Australian security official. "There are people coming from all over the country. It has been peaceful so far but any attempt to break it up will be vigorously repelled. There are thousands of people and the potential for violence should not be underestimated."
Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato said yesterday riot police were on standby to deal with any attempt by diehard pro-Indonesian militias to take advantage of the protests.
"The Rapid Response Force has been ready for the last two weeks in case a third party tries to create chaos," Mr Lobato told The Australian. "There are former militia in this group and that is not good because they will take the opportunity to create problems."
Mr Lobato hoped that the protest could be ended peacefully and said the Government was engaged in talks with senior Catholic clergy. "It is important we keep the situation stable," he said.
"The use of force would cause unnecessary victims and that is not good for Timor Leste [East Timor]. We already have too many martyrs. But there are some people in the Catholic Church who might want us to create more martyrs." Mr Lobato warned time was running out for the protesters.
Several Australians working in East Timor claimed a number of police had joined the protesters. The protest began in mid-April with a call by the Catholic clergy for the resignation of Dr Alkatiri, a Muslim, over his decision to drop religious education from the curriculum.
The appeal struck a popular chord, with many in the staunchly conservative Catholic nation already uneasy about being ruled by an un-elected Muslim.
The presence of nuns and priests helped quickly swell the ranks of protesters who came from across the country to air a grab-bag of grievances including lack of employment opportunities, poor living conditions and demands for more schools and hospitals.