East Timor rebels begin disarmament

Published June 17, 2006

MAUBISSE, East Timor - East Timor rebel soldiers surrendered the first of their weapons to Australian peacekeepers Friday, beginning a process deemed vital to ending months of bloody unrest.

Lt. Cmdr. Alfredo Reinado, who heads a rebel group that includes soldiers dismissed from the army in March, handed an Australian soldier his M-16 rifle, together with ammunition from his vest.

His soldiers, standing in a row in military fatigues, saluted him and turned in their own guns. Reinado checked that they were unloaded and passed them on to the Australians, who noted down their type and serial numbers.

The rebels gave up 12 fully automatic rifles, four pistols and an unknown amount of ammunition in a low-key ceremony outside the capital, Dili. The rebels fled there in April amid clashes with loyalist forces.

The fighting between soldiers escalated into widespread street violence that killed at least 30 people and drove 130,000 from their homes.

While the violence has ebbed since security forces from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal were deployed to patrol the streets and search cars for weapons, many in the camps remain too scared to return to their villages.

The rebels agreed to disarm after receiving a request from President Xanana Gusmao, a former guerrilla chief revered for his role in helping East Timor achieve independence from Indonesia.

Reinado said he would hand over more weapons under his control in the coming days.

Government officials could not be immediately reached for comment. In Dili, U.N. special representative Sukehiro Hasegawa called the weapons handover a "first step in the right direction."