New Zealand troops are detaining suspected arsonists and looters as they embark on a frustrating cat-and-mouse game with gangs terrorising the East Timorese capital of Dili.
The 166-strong New Zealand contingent is patrolling on foot and in vehicles from their newly-established base in a police station in the flashpoint suburb of Becora.
More looting and torching broke out last night, but the New Zealand Defence Force said it was quickly stopped.
Lieutenant Commander Barbara Cassin said troops were quick to act on violence which broke out near the airport, and when a fire was lit near a petrol station.
Spears, knives, machetes and lethal home-made darts have been confiscated, along with the cheap disposable lighters which are used to such lethal effect by arsonists.
Homes are still being torched and looted despite the presence of around 2500 troops from New Zealand, Australia, Portugal and Malaysia.
The New Zealanders have been able to prevent thatched huts from being burned on at least one occasion, but without proper firefighting equipment are powerless to save homes and shops already blazing out of control.
"Not much we can do about that one," said Private Chas Takiwa, 19, from Taumarunui, near Taupo, as a burning breeze-block house sent up a plume of thick black smoke.
Private Takiwa was part of a four-vehicle patrol from the Christchurch-based 2nd/1st Battalion, Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment, sent to investigate yet another outbreak of arson on Dili's outskirts.
A few dozen young men crowded around the New Zealanders' light trucks but they did not know, or would not say, who was responsible for lighting the fires.
The communal hatreds and ethnic tensions fuelling Dili's violence contrast with the ecstatic welcome the New Zealanders receive everywhere they go in this dirt-poor city.
"Kia ora, kia ora, bon dia Kiwi, you are number one," locals yelled as the army vehicles rumbled down pot-holed roads lined with banana palms and eucalyptus trees.
A man with a pet monkey on a string leash grinned and gave the victory sign, and women with their teeth stained red from chewing betel nut smiled and waved as an Australian army Blackhawk helicopter clattered overhead.
"We get lots of friendly greetings but then you turn your back and the fires start," said Lieutenant Marcus Bunn, from Wanganui, one of the officers in charge of the patrol.
A few kilometres up the road a foot patrol had detained a band of suspected looters and arsonists.
The men and teenage boys squatted on the floor guarded by soldiers with automatic rifles.
Beside them was a small pile of weapons, including hammers, scissors and a crude homemade axe.
Like most East Timorese they were short and slight, barely chest height to the much bulkier and taller New Zealand soldiers, who towered over them.
A few metres away, a tangle of smouldering wood and corrugated iron was all that remained of a clutch of torched homes.
"We were on a routine patrol and we came across them systematically looting houses," said platoon sergeant Haaka Rogers, from Opotiki in the Bay of Plenty.
"We tried to stop as many as we could and apprehended 19."
The suspects were likely to be released after 24 hours in detention, but the New Zealanders hope that their apprehension will serve as a deterrent to others.
"They are really worried," said Nico da Silva, a former tour guide and English teacher now working as a translator for the army. "They are asking me if they will be detained for a long time."
The gang of men from the west of East Timor were intent on burning and looting the homes of people from the east of the country.
"A few days ago some easterners burned their houses. Now it's payback time," da Silva said.
But the ethnic tensions which have pitched westerners against easterners over the last fortnight are entwined with criminal opportunism and murky political maneuvering.
There is widespread suspicion that some within the ruling Fretilin Party are directing and exploiting gangs to advance their political ambitions.
Foreign forces have to negotiate a baffling ethnic and political minefield as they attempt to stop East Timor from plunging into civil war. "It's a lot more complex than has been made out in the media," Lt Bunn said.
"In one area we're patrolling there's a river dividing two groups who dislike each other. It's not an ethnic thing - it's just one side disliking the other."
The ethnic and political fracture has been exacerbated by crippling poverty, chronic under-development and 50 per cent unemployment.
Groups of young men spend their days wandering the streets, smoking cigarettes on the steps of crumbling colonial buildings or trying to hawk phone cards to the few foreigners who remain in Dili.
"There are huge rates of illiteracy, the population growth is the highest in the world and people are very, very poor," New Zealand's ambassador to East Timor Ruth Nuttall said. "The challenges are enormous."
The violence of the past month brought the potential for civil war. "There was a risk," the ambassador said.
"The arrival of the international forces has put a lid on it and stopped it from blowing out of control."
As for the gangs still spreading fear throughout an already traumatised country: "Our view is that they're criminals and they need to be stopped," Ms Nuttall said.
Eight New Zealand military police arrived yesterday to replace the troops who until now have been protecting the embassy.
Their deployment will free up more troops for the desperately needed campaign to restore peace.
"The aim of the international forces is to create an environment for the East Timorese to solve their own problems," said New Zealand military attache John McLeod. "We're trying to maintain a dialogue with the key players."
- additional reporting NEWSTALK ZB