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Timor capital calm after President takes charge

EAST TIMOR: East Timor's capital was calm for the first time in more than a week on Wednesday as residents digested news that independence hero President Xanana Gusmao had assumed sole responsibility for the country's security.

Gusmao's proclamation on Tuesday night appeared to quell the violence by gangs of youths who have been on a rampage of looting and arson sparked by the dismissal of nearly half the army.

Gusmao said he was taking sole responsibility for the tiny nation's armed forces and would also be in charge of coordinating a 2,500-strong Australian-led international peacekeeping force that East Timor asked for last week to restore order.

His move - assuming emergency powers without declaring a formal state of emergency - is seen as further isolating Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, whose handling of the affair has been heavily criticised both in Timor and abroad.

"There was always a wedge between them, but that wedge has been hit with a sledgehammer," one diplomat told Reuters.

But Alkatiri added confusion to Timor's already complex political situation on Wednesday by insisting he was still in charge.

"You are wrong, completely wrong, he (Gusmao) is not taking control," he told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

"The defence and security is still part of the government, and I am the head of the government," he said, blaming the confusion of a misinterpretation of Gusmao's statement from Portuguese into English.

On the street, those who have heard the news have no doubt who is in charge.

"This is good. Now we can go back to our homes," said Jose Aurajo, who has slept for the past five nights along with hundreds of other people in the carpark of his neighbourhood church.

"Gusmao will never let the nation down. Alkatiri must take responsibility for this and must resign."

Meanwhile East Timor's rebel leader Major Alfredo Reinado labelled an emergency declaration designed to bring peace to the country a "mistake" Wednesday because it did not involve sacking the prime minister.

"This it's not a solution, he (Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri) is a criminal and should not be allow to stay as prime minister," Reinado told AFP by mobile phone from his base in the countryside outside the capital Dili.

"That is the mistake that the president has made."

Meanwhile Australia plans to keep troops in East Timor for at least six months but hopes to scale down its deployment as order returns to the tiny nation, a top military official said on Wednesday.

Australia is leading a 2,500-strong contingent of international peacekeepers in East Timor after it appealed for help to quell a rebellion by almost half of the army, which led to widespread violence in the capital Dili. Dili, Canberra, Wednesday, Reuters, AFP

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