DILI, EAST TIMOR --The police here, trained by the United Nations over the four years of this country's existence, melted away in the dilapidated capital yesterday, abandoning their stations for hiding places they felt would keep them safe from a vengeful military.
Opposing gangs of young men, divided along lines of ethnicity and armed with rocks and machetes, roamed the streets setting fires that sent up thick smoke. All stores were closed. The city's handful of gas stations shut down when their Western owners, fearful that their employees would be attacked and their pumps emptied, were evacuated.
The arrival of Australian and Malaysian peacekeepers in the past two days failed to stem the chaos that has engulfed the city after a week of violence between factions of East Timor's security forces.
"In terms of terror, this is the worst day we've had so far," said a Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak for attribution. "We're still left with anarchy in Dili, with no police and no Australian sheriff to take charge."
Several hundred people clustered around the walls of the U.S. Embassy yesterday afternoon. Families fled their homes for shelter in schools, and the airport grounds served as a major gathering place, including for many women with children.
"They just burned down our house today," said Jacqueline Siapno. "Our very close friends told us they tried to guard the house, but guys came yesterday and bashed down the doors, and today they came back to burn it. It seems they feel violence is the only way they can solve things."
Siapno, the wife of a prominent opposition party leader, Fernando Lasamma, who was a leader in East Timor's 20-year struggle for independence against Indonesia, said she understood that violence was perhaps necessary back then. In a 1999 referendum, East Timor voted for separation from Indonesia, and it was run by the United Nations until independence in May 2002.
"I understand violence was the price of independence," Siapno said. "But why now?"
Law and order broke down in recent months as the United Nations, which had treated East Timor as a test for helping poor, newly independent countries, was about to leave the country, its job as political and military trainer completed. The more than 300 staff members at the U.N. compound here had been scheduled to leave in April. But that was before the violence increased.
The United Nations and the World Bank had hoped that the country, which has a population of 926,000, would pass a critical five-year threshold. "Most countries emerging from conflict, especially new countries, relapse into violence within five years," a World Bank report said last year. The report said the country looked set to break the mold.
Instead, security had deteriorated so much that the United Nations announced yesterday that it was evacuating more than 250 nonessential personnel and the dependents of 100 U.N. officials who would remain. The staff who will stay were warned at a briefing that they could become targets of the violence, said a spokeswoman, Kym Louise Smithie.
The number of people killed in the past week remained unclear. Several Western officials said they believed it was more than 20.
The deadliest episode occurred Thursday when soldiers loyal to the government fatally shot 10 unarmed police officers as they were leaving police headquarters under a truce arranged by the United Nations.
In an interview yesterday, Sukehiro Hasegawa, the United Nations' resident representative, said the police asked for help from the United Nations after a contingent of soldiers attacked the police headquarters, adjacent to the U.N. compound.
The East Timorese prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, had expressed regret. "But that is not enough," Hasegawa said.