Rebels Begin Disarming in East Timor

Disaffected troops in East Timor, following a request from President Xanana Gusmao, have handed over a small number of weapons to foreign peacekeepers. The move marks another step back from the violence that erupted last month between rival factions in the tiny Southeast Asian nation's military.

At least 21 people have died in the violence in East Timor, while tens of thousands in the capital Dili have fled their homes in fear.

Gun battles between troops loyal to the government and rebel factions prompted the intervention last month of more than 2,000 foreign peacekeepers, most from neighboring Australia.

The foreign troops have had a calming effect, and on Friday, they began to disarm rebel units. So far only a handful of high-powered rifles and ammunition have been handed in, and Australian military commanders have admitted the process will take time.

Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta says the men who have handed over their weapons have made the right decision, choosing peaceful negotiation over violence.

"They have not done harm to anyone and they have pledged they would not involve in violence with their comrades in the defense force,” he said. “So that has only boosted their credibility."

The rebels were dismissed from the army in March after going on strike to complain of discrimination. Hundreds of them have been hiding in the mountains that surround the capital since the violence began.

Disarming them is considered crucial to easing East Timor's crisis. After a plea from the country's revered president, the independence leader Xanana Gusmao, the rebel leaders promised to hand in every single firearm.

But it is unclear how many weapons actually remain in rebel hands.