DILI, East Timor -- President Xanana Gusmao , a former guerrilla leader and independence hero, announced emergency measures yesterday after a mob stole evidence on massacres that followed the nation's break from Indonesia.
Gusmao's declaration that he was taking sole control of security was seen as an attempt to break a political deadlock that has paralyzed the government and may have helped fuel deadly violence.
The announcement was made after two days of wrangling with Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, leader of the ruling party. Gusmao has had a partly ceremonial role in government but inspires adulation for his fight against Indonesia's harsh occupation, which ended after East Timor voted for independence in 1999.
Gusmao previously stayed out of daily politics, preferring a loftier role as a symbol of the new nation.
But yesterday , seated in his office after the Cabinet announced the firing of the defense and interior ministers, Gusmao said he was assuming ``sole responsibility" for security. He said he was taking direct control of the armed forces and key ministries, and urged lawmakers to meet to discuss a solution to ``a state of grave crisis."
``We need the parliament to start functioning," Gusmao said.
What started last week as sporadic clashes between former soldiers and government troops has spiraled into gang warfare. Violence has engulfed the capital, killing at least 27 people and wounding 100. Some 1,300 foreign troops have been sent in from Australia, New Zealand, and Malaysia in hopes of restoring calm.
Loyalist troops now are confined to their barracks, renegade former soldiers are in the hills near Dili, the police force is in disarray, most government offices are closed, and many lawmakers have fled the capital, along with a fifth of the population.
One mob ransacked the attorney general's office yesterday and stole files on the most prominent Indonesian defendants in the killings that followed East Timor's independence vote, Attorney General Longuinhos Monteiro said.
The missing files include one on former General Wiranto, Indonesia's armed forces chief during the massacres, who was indicted for rights abuses in East Timor by UN-backed prosecutors, Monteiro said.
Wiranto has consistently denied any wrongdoing. East Timor has sought reconciliation with Indonesia; prosecution of suspects in the massacres had not appeared imminent.
International troops have seized up to 400 weapons, including rifles, grenades, and machetes. But they have yet to stop the gangs terrorizing the seaside capital, possibly because of limits on the force they can use under their agreement with East Timorese authorities.
Gusmao appealed to people to surrender illegal weapons and explosives to foreign peacekeepers, and to cooperate with identification checks and surveillance operations.
He said he had chosen not to declare a state of emergency. ``A state of siege will restrict some liberties, some freedoms, and we want to avoid this," Gusmao said.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan said he hoped residents would heed Gusmao's appeal. ``It's really sad and tragic that we have to relive this situation again in East Timor," Annan said.
The Australian military said the level of unrest has diminished since last week, when the renegade former soldiers clashed with East Timorese government forces.
But the troops struggled to keep order as thousands of residents fought for bags of rice at a food distribution center.
``The situation is terrible," said Daniel Afonso, who fled his destroyed home with his parents and four children and is staying at a church refugee center. ``It is dangerous to go out looking for food."
The roots of the violence lie in East Timor's legacy of conflict, poverty, and faded post-independence hopes. But the catalyst was the dismissal of the 600 soldiers, close to half the army, by commanders with credentials as independence fighters.
The soldiers had gone on strike claiming discrimination and mistreatment, and some residents called them ``westerners" and questioned their loyalty to an independent East Timor.