East Timor: Australian troops provoke more unrest claims biggest party

Dili, 20 August (AKI) - East Timor’s largest party, Fretilin, has accused Australian troops stationed in the country of fuelling conflict by failing to respect the party's flag. According to Fretilin's vice president and MP Arsenio Bano, Australian troops have torn up Fretilin flags and using them as 'toilet roll'.

He said the incidents occurred in the eastern part of the country on 18 August, at two separate locations – on the road between Baucau and Viqueque and in the village of Alala in Viqueque district. Villagers in the district had raised the Fretilin flag to protest the appointment of former president and independence fighter Xanana Gusmao as prime minister.

 "At Walili, two Australian military vehicles full of soldiers tore up a Fretilin flag which had been raised at the roadside, wiped their backsides with it and drove off with the flag. The stolen flag was returned by an Australian army captain later that day,” he said on Monday.

"In Alala village, Australian troops tried to sever a Fretilin flag from its rope and then drove over it,” he added.

Radio Australia reports that the Australian Defence Force is investigating the theft of Fretilin flags. A defence spokeswoman says the flags were taken while the group was passing through the village of Bercoli on their way to Baucau, which lies east of the capital, Dili.

Australian troops returned one of the flags on Saturday, while the others were returned on Sunday.

The spokeswoman also said that “the removal of any flag without permission is wrong and culturally insensitive.”

Bano said the incidents could not be excused as the actions of misguided individual soldiers, and that the two episodes confirm Australian bias against Fretilin.  

"The trashing of Fretilin flags is yet another demonstration of the partisan nature of the [Australian prime minister John] Howard government's military intervention in East Timor," Bano said,

Fretilin has long charged that Australia has an interest in East Timor's politics which is linked to the disputed gas and oil reserves located in the seabed that separates the two countries.

According to Fretilin, Canberra has played a role in the instability that led to the removal of former prime minister Mari Alkatiri last year.

Alkatiri is credited with having driven a hard bargain with Australia over some of the disputed resources held within the so-called Greater Sunrise field, the largest known petroleum resource in the Timor Sea.

Greater Sunrise will soon be jointly exploited and is expected to produce an estimated 20 billion dollars in revenue over its lifetime.

A treaty allowing the field to be exploited was signed in Sydney 18 months ago. Controversially, this prevents both countries from pursuing maritime boundary claims for 50 years.

Under international law, the field belongs almost exclusively to East Timor.

Besides Greater Sunrise, Dili accuses Canberra of having exploited other oil and gas fields that belong to East Timor.

Lao Hamutuk, an East Timorese non-governmental organisation, claims that Australia has earned 1.42 billion dollars in government revenues from the Laminaria-Corallina field. Although it is twice as close to East Timor as it is to Australia, the field is solely exploited by Australia.

The field that started operating in 1999 and is now 75 percent depleted.

Tensions have risen again in East Timor after the 30 June legislative elections failed to produce a single outright winner. Fretilin won the largest number of parlimentary seats - 21 out of 65.

Fretilin, formerly the ruling party, has rejected as illegal president Jose Ramos Horta's appointment two weeks ago of Gusmao as the new prime minister.

Freitlin has claimed it has the right to form a government rather than Gusmao and his new party, the National Committee for the Reconstruction of East Timor (CNRT) - Fretilin's rival - in an alliance with several coalition parties.

Last year's outbreak of deadly ethnic violence in East Timor was widely attributed to poor leadership by Fretilin, especially its secretary-general, Mari Alkatiri, who was East Timor's prime minister at the time.


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