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Australian Troops Hunt for Fugitive Rebel Leader in East Timor

05 March 2007

Australian troops in East Timor are hunting a rebel leader blamed for inciting violence and destabilizing the country last year. A raid Sunday on the jungle camp of Major Alfredo Reinado failed to catch him, and sparked violent protests by his supporters in the capital Dili. From Sydney, Phil Mercer reports.

Australian troops attacked a rebel stronghold south of the East Timorese capital Dili using armored vehicles, planes and helicopters on Sunday. Despite the firepower Major Alfredo Reinado escaped. Four of his men were killed.

The clashes between Australian peacekeepers and rebel fighters prompted violent reprisals in Dili. Thousands of angry supporters of Reinado have burnt tires and thrown stones to protest against the raid.

The hunt for Reinado continues. Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer is urging the fugitive commander who broke out of jail in August to give himself up to peacekeepers.

"Obviously they will endeavor to capture him alive. Every effort will be made to achieve that but I think the best advice I could give Major Reinado is to surrender. I mean, you know, he can hide in the jungle for only so long so in the end he would be much better surrendering," Downer said.

Reinado says the East Timorese leadership is corrupt. He is blamed for inciting bloody clashes between government forces and rebel ex-soldiers that seriously destabilized East Timor last year. About 37 people were killed and tens of thousands of people in Dili forced to flee their homes.

The standoff between Reinado and foreign peacekeepers has raised fears of violence ahead of a presidential election next month.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says there are sufficient numbers of foreign troops in East Timor to prevent the situation spiraling out of control.

"There has been some addition to those forces. As I say I don't want to go into the details of that. I'm satisfied on the advice of the Chief of the Defense Force that we do have adequate forces there at the present time," Howard said.

Australia has about 800 troops in East Timor. They are supported by a smaller contingent of soldiers from New Zealand.

East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999 but remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.

Ethnic and regional tensions within East Timor have hindered efforts to bring about much needed economic and social change for the country's one million people.

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