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Last Update: Saturday, May 27, 2006. 12:17pm (AEST)
'Total madness' as gangs fight in Dili
Ethnic gangs are clashing in East Timor's capital, Dili, where Australian troops are trying to restore order after days of fighting between soldiers and police.
Houses and cars are being torched as youths armed with daggers, machetes and slingshots rampage through the streets of the city.
The Australian troops have stepped up security in response to the violence, with hundreds of soldiers lining both sides of the road to the airport to ensure the vital link is kept open.
Hundreds of East Timorese residents have crowded outside the Australian embassy and hundreds more rushed to the airport, where the international military presence is the heaviest and their safety is assured.
"This is a communal dispute that's escalated because of the overall situation," one UN official said as he rushed to brief an Australian Army patrol.
"It's basically payback time between the different groups."
The Australian forces began arriving on Thursday after the East Timorese Government called for international help to stop the bloodshed in and around Dili.
East vs west
The violence was sparked by the sacking of 600 soldiers, who had deserted their barracks in protest against perceived discrimination in pay and promotions based on ethnicity.
"It's east against west, soldiers against soldiers, police against soldiers, everyone against everyone," Father Lalo, a Catholic priest who is on the streets urging people to put down their weapons, said.
"It's total madness."
Gangs from the east and west of the country are fighting each other using slingshots, machetes and bows and arrows.
Residents of some neighbourhoods have erected makeshift roadblocks in an attempt to protect their homes but houses and numerous cars are ablaze.
"Where am I supposed to go home tonight?" shouted a woman whose house was burnt down.
"Everything I have is up in smoke."
Aid agencies step in
World Vision Australia chief executive Tim Costello is flying to Dili tonight to try to help the more than 50,000 people displaced by the violence.
Earlier he feared one of his workers had been killed, and now he has received confirmation that another has had his home torched.
"You feel very helpless and you know that people up there are just waiting and praying," he said.
"I guess you do feel very proud that it's Australian troops who they're waiting for, they are absolutely looking to for their security and salvation.
"I think that's absolutely fantastic we're playing that role."
The UN is planning to evacuate the majority of its 300 to 400 staff in East Timor, possibly from today.
At least 100 people were evacuated to Australia yesterday and similar numbers are expected to leave today.