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Mobs in Timor loot amid chaos

People drag goods from a looted warehouse in Dili Friday as a soldier watches.


East Timor

(CNN) -- Nearly 1,000 residents of East Timor's strife-torn capital Dili have stormed and looted a warehouse, adding to the chaos and lawlessness that have been plaguing the city.

The crowd looted the government warehouse in Dili Friday, and stole whatever they could find, CNN's Stan Grant reported.

They stole computers, desks, chairs, filing cabinets and even reams of paper.

Australian troops, who were brought into Dili in the past week to restore order and disarm warring gangs and rebel factions in the military and police, watched as the looting took place, Grant said.

Under the Australians' terms of engagement, their role is to confiscate weapons such as firearms and knives, and keep the peace.

Portuguese police, who have different powers from the Australian force, were able to come in and stop the looting about an hour later.

Violence has engulfed the capital, killing at least 28 people since fighting broke out on April 28, and wounding 100 others in the past week.

Buildings have been burnt, shops have been closed and residents have formed long lines to get rice from relief workers.

"It's a very volatile mix and a confusing picture," Grant said Friday.

East Timor's latest troubles began in March, when the government fired 600 soldiers from a 1,400-member army. They had gone on strike against alleged discrimination in the military. The soldiers left Dili for the countryside, where they set up armed camps.

What began as an army mutiny then descended into street fights by rival gangs -- from eastern and western parts of Timor -- roaming the streets.

About 2,200 international troops and police, including about 1,300 from Australia and 330 from Malaysia, along with contingents from New Zealand and Portugal, have arrived in East Timor since May 25 at the request of the government.

The Red Cross says 40,000 residents have been displaced.

Thousands of people have fled the city. Many of those that have stayed are bunkering down at the airport, with some going home during the day.

In recent days, the political struggle has intensified.

The decision to dismiss the soldiers was made by Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, and the political rift between him and President Xanana Gusmao has been growing, with some pressure on the prime minister to resign.

On Friday, Alkatiri again said he would not be resigning, unless his Fretilin party wanted him to go.

On Tuesday, Gusmao assumed control of security forces after marauders broke into the attorney general's office and stole files on defendants accused in killings that followed the nation's independence vote from Indonesia in 1999.

Former guerrilla leader Gusmao sacked the defense and interior ministers. One of the looted files was that of Gen. Wiranto, former chief of Indonesia's armed forces, who was indicted for human rights abuses.

U.S. officials on Tuesday ordered the families of U.S. Embassy employees, and non-emergency embassy workers, to leave the country, and urged other Americans there to do likewise.

East Timor, formally known as the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste, became independent in 2002. It declared independence in 1975 after four centuries as a Portuguese colony, but Indonesian troops invaded just days later and ruled it for the next 24 years.

East Timor broke away from Indonesia amid a wave of violent protests that followed the 1999 referendum on independence. A U.N. transitional administration ruled the territory for nearly three years before full independence in May 2002.

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