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East Timor Orders Arrest of Ex-Minister

June 20, 2006 GMT

DILI, East Timor (AP) _ East Timor prosecutors ordered the arrest of the former interior minister Tuesday for supplying weapons to a hit squad tasked with eliminating the prime minister’s political opponents, the United Nations said.

International troops, meanwhile, tightened security across the capital as hundreds of protesters gathered to demand Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri’s ouster, some handing out fliers calling him a terrorist and a murderer.

Young men mounted a small stage across the street from Alkatiri’s office, launching into speeches criticizing his rule as others chanted ``Step down! Step down!″

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``He is a criminal. He divided the Timorese people,″ said Vidal Gomez, 19.

Many East Timorese say Alkatiri’s decision to fire 600 disgruntled soldiers in March was to blame for the subsequent clashes and gang warfare that has left at least 30 people dead. Some also allege he formed a hit squad to kill his political opponents.

``I never provided any weapons to anyone,″ Alkatiri said in a television interview to be broadcast nationally Tuesday evening, adding he welcomed a U.N. investigation into the claims.

The decision by the country’s top prosecutor to issue an arrest warrant for former Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato, who resigned on June 1, however, added credibility to the allegations.

The indictment accuses Lobato of giving guns to rebel leader Vincente ``Railos″ da Concecao _ the self-proclaimed leader of a hit squad allegedly commissioned by Alkatiri to silence the opposition _ on at least three occasions in May, according to a U.N. statement.

His alleged aim was to ``alter the public order and the democratic rule of law,″ the statement said.

Lobato, deputy head of Alkatiri’s ruling Fretelin party, was at his home in Dili on Tuesday, said Jose Manuel Fernandes, the party’s vice secretary-general.

Fearing unrest during the protest, Australian troops brandishing automatic weapons patrolled the perimeter of the presidential palace, while others stopped traffic to search for weapons. Convoys of armored personnel rattled through the streets, which were lined with banners vilifying Alkatiri.

The protesters said they would keep up their demonstrations until Alkatiri stepped down, something he has vowed not to do, and said they expected more than 30,000 to turn out in coming days as word spreads to the countryside.

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Some protesters handed out fliers linking Alkatiri, a Muslim in this deeply Roman Catholic country and a descendent of Yemeni immigrants, with al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and calling him a ``murderer″ and ``not pure Timorese.″

Alkatiri accused the protesters of double standards, saying in his television interview that ``majors are running off into the mountains and attacking loyalist soldiers with weapons, they’re not accused of being terrorists.″

The violence that has enveloped the fledgling nation in recent months is the worst since its bloody break for independence from Indonesia in 1999, when revenge-seeking militias went on a rampage that left more nearly 1,500 dead.

Alkatiri’s dismissal of more than 40 percent of the country’s armed forces triggered clashes with loyalist forces that gave way to machete-wielding youths torching houses and looting government buildings. One of Lobato’s three houses was among those attacked, with six people burned alive, two of them young children.

Nearly 150,000 people have fled their homes, though tensions have eased in recent weeks with the arrival of a 2,700-strong Australian-led multinational force.

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Associated Press writers Rod McGuirk and Guido Guilliard contributed to this report from Dili.