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by Mario de Queiroz

E Timor Mystery: What Was Behind Assassination Attempt?

(IPS) -- It was a time of hope and rejoicing when East Timor finally achieved independence in May 2002, after 450 years of Portuguese rule and a quarter-century occupation by Indonesia that killed one-third of the population. But the violence has not let up, and this time it was President Jose Ramos-Horta in the crosshairs.

The legendary leader of the armed resistance against Jakarta, Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, was also attacked but escaped unharmed. He is currently prime minister of this young country, occupying the eastern portion of the island of Timor, southeast of Indonesia and north of Australia.

Former Major Alfredo Reinado and a group of soldiers loyal to him carried out the attack at Ramos-Horta's home in Dili, the capital of East Timor. The president, winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, is the country's most popular politician. He has been airlifted to an Australian hospital where he is reportedly in serious but stable condition.

Reinado was among those killed in the shoot-out with the president's guards.

Simultaneously, an armed group led by Lieutenant Gastao Salsinha, Reinado's second-in-command when he was head of the Military Police regiment, staged an ambush against Gusmao on a rural highway. But the prime minister escaped unscathed.

Gusmao's prestige arose from his leadership of a guerrilla group which never had more than 200 members, but ferociously resisted the 22,000 Indonesian soldiers who occupied the east of the island in 1975, one year after the coup d'etat in Portugal that put an end to the 1926-1974 dictatorship and the point at which Portugal's vast colonial empire was dismantled.

The brutal Indonesian occupation ended in 1999, when a United Nations peacekeeping force, led by Australia and seconded by Portugal, forced Jakarta's army to retreat, leaving a tragic toll of 210,000 dead behind them, out of a population which numbered 660,000 in 1975.

The legendary "Commander Xanana," who was dubbed "Asia's Che Guevara" in reference to the Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, was supported by Ramos-Horta's tireless advocacy in the international field, as an essential partnership in the struggle for independence.

On a recent visit to Lisbon, Ramos-Horta said the genocide, the largest in proportional terms to have been committed in the 20th century, as well as later conflicts between Timorese groups, left "old wounds with deep scars, and others which were reopened in the latest conflict (in 2006)."

In his latest interview with IPS, during an official visit to Portugal in January, Ramos-Horta acknowledged that "the difficulties are enormous and poverty is widespread."

Democratic stability "takes many years to develop, and sometimes people forget that we are only in our fifth year of independence," the Timorese leader said on that occasion.

In late April and early May 2006, a crisis broke out when Major Reinado deserted the army with 20 soldiers and police officers, and engaged in combat with troops loyal to then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, the head of the Revolutionary Front of Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) which governed after independence.

The violence reached its peak in June 2006, when it appeared that the long struggle for freedom had become a blind dispute over power, with Australian and Portuguese interests hovering in the wings.

In that month the conflicts grew bloodier, and 40 people were killed. Reinado, cornered by the local army and Australian, Portuguese and Malaysian forces, bunkered down in the forest with Salsinha and some 20 loyal men. They emerged in the early hours of Monday morning to attempt to assassinate the two men considered the "fathers of the nation."

Reinado and Salsinha's excuse for their rebellion was the alleged ethnic discrimination against the Loromunus, from the western part of the island, by the Lorosae, from the east. The former complain that they are discriminated against by the latter, who control the armed forces and the police.

The key to understanding Monday's attempts on the lives of the prime minister and president lies in the intense political-military crisis which broke out on Apr. 27, 2006, fuelled by the disintegration of the national police force and deep divisions in the armed forces, made up of the former guerrillas who had fought the Indonesian army.

In late April and May of that year, the protest burst the confines of the barracks and spread to the streets of Dili and Baucau, the country's second-largest city, causing widespread panic.

The police vanished and no one could stop civilian Loromunus from setting fire to the homes of the Lorosaes, many of whom fled Dili and took refuge in the mountains.

The tension in East Timor on Monday was palpable. Nevertheless, the dispatches from Portuguese correspondents in the former colony concurred that things are calm.

This was "a cowardly attack on the president of the republic, on the prime minister and on the country's institutions," Gusmao said. He declared a state of siege for an initial period of 48 hours.

East Timor's Foreign Minister, Zacarias da Costa, said that Ramos-Horta had been flown to Australia after an operation in Dili which removed one of the two bullets that perforated his stomach.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Carlos Correia of the Portuguese National Republican Guard (GNR)'s "Bravo" brigade confirmed that Reinado was dead, although he was unable to say exactly how many people had been killed in the fighting.

At the same time criticism of the United Nations peacekeeping forces stationed in East Timor began to emerge, as.they are being accused of failing to act promptly.

"The UN forces placed barricades on the roads, but they did not immediately come to the aid of Ramos-Horta, who lay in his bedroom for over an hour waiting for help," Joao Carrascalao, leader of the Timorese Democratic Union (UDT) and one of the country's most influential politicians, told the Portuguese news agency Lusa.

Carrascalao said that "UNPOL (the UN police) arrived on the scene and took up a position 300 metres away, without providing Ramos-Horta with any help, so it was the GNR that came to his aid," an omission he viewed as "serious."

According to Portuguese correspondents, up to noon GMT on Monday, the UN has only asked East Timorese families to stay at home and people to restrict their movements to a minimum, while placing its forces on "maximum alert."

Former Prime Minister Alkatiri, in spite of his differences with Ramos-Horta and Gusmao, joined the chorus of criticism of the UN today in his official capacity as leader of the FRETILIN opposition by calling the UN mission in East Timor to account for the attacks on the president and prime minister.

During the short life of the first new country to emerge in the 21st century, and the second newest overall after Montenegro in the former Yugoslavia, East Timor's political balance continues to walk a tightrope of contradictions.

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Albion Monitor   February 13, 2008   (

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