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More East Timorese soldiers desert: officer

Nearly 600 East Timorese soldiers have deserted their barracks this month in protest against alleged discrimination and over-zealous surveillance, an officer in the group says.

The officer, who declines to be named, says a batch of 177 soldiers last weekend joined an earlier 404 who initially left their barracks in Metinaro and Baucau on February 8.

The fledgling East Timorese Army has about 1,500 regular soldiers and 1,500 reservists.

The first batch took their grievances to President Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader.

They returned to their barracks but then deserted again shortly afterwards.

Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has threatened punishment for the deserters.

He has been quoted as saying many of soldiers are former resistance fighters unused to the discipline of a regular military force.

East Timorese guerrilla forces fought against Indonesia during their almost 24 years of occupation of the former Portuguese colony.

The country became the world's youngest nation in May 2002.

The officer says the action is not politically motivated.

"There was no political pressure from anyone," he said.

"It was purely because of the discrimination and the treatment we received from several of our commanders while we were in Metinaro."

He did not specify on what grounds they had been discriminated against.

The officer says the men will not return to their respective bases until their grievances are addressed.

"There (at the base) we are being treated like dangerous prisoners," he said.

"We are under constant observation from the armed security section."

He adds that even when they are eating or showering they are under watch.

Military commander Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak was last week quoted by the Suara Timor Lorosae newspaper as saying that the 404 deserters should consider themselves as discharged for disobeying orders to return to work.

Military officials are not immediately available for comment.


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