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Search continues for East Timor prison escapees 31/08/2006

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says Australian security forces are working closely with East Timorese authorities in the hunt for 56 prison escapees.

The prisoners, including former rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, escaped from the jail in the capital, Dili, on Wednesday.

Mr Downer says the matter is of serious concern.

"The sooner they are recaptured the better," he said.

The minister says he will be visiting East Timor early next week to hold three-way talks with the East Timorese government and the Indonesians.

Prisoners 'walked free'

The commander of Australian forces in East Timor, Brigadier Mick Slater, says he believes the escape was organised and the prisoners are now probably carrying weapons.

"I understand that when this happened yesterday they were not locked up," he said.

"It was visiting time and there were a large number of visitors in the prison.

"There was some kind of a ruckus caused by the visitors and then the prisoners were enabled to walk out the front gate."

Dili's jail is run by East Timorese authorities.

Attempted murder claims

Major Reinado was arrested with 20 other men in July over their role in the violence that erupted in and around Dili in April and May.

He has been charged with several offences, including attempted murder and the embezzlement of military property.

In late May, the rebel leader led a group of fellow military police into the mountains behind Dili, refusing to give up their weapons until the then prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, resigned from office.

At least 21 people died during the violence in East Timor and 150,000 others were displaced.

The unrest had its origins in the March sacking of about 600 soldiers, who had deserted their barracks complaining of discrimination.

Produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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