Government forces in East Timor kill ex-guerrilla leader in clash

JAKARTA (REUTERS) - A former guerrilla leader in East Timor has been killed in a security operation, the government said on Sunday, raising concern about unrest in Asia's youngest nation.

Mauk Moruk, widely considered a symbol of resistance against the independent government of the gas-rich but poor half-island nation, was killed in a joint police and military operation in the Fatulia area.

"Every effort was made during the operation to avoid this outcome," a government spokesman said in a statement, calling for calm. "Regrettably the operation was unable to avoid a confrontation resulting in an exchange of gunfire."

After decades under harsh Indonesian rule, when rag-tag rebels battled Indonesian forces from the hills, the former Portuguese colony has struggled to develop economically since independence in 2002.

Moruk often confronted another old guerrilla leader, Xanana Gusmao, the country's first president and later prime minister, challenging the government to do more about poverty and unemployment.

Despite gas production worth billions of dollars, about half the 1.2 million population live in poverty, according to the World Bank.

Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, after Portugal abruptly pulled out of a colony it had ruled for three centuries, and annexed the territory later that year, maintaining a heavy and at times brutal military presence.

Indonesia later allowed a vote and East Timor opted for independence in a violence-plagued poll in 1999.

Independence hero Gusmao stepped down as prime minister this year.

The government spokesman said the country's security commission was due to meet on Monday to discuss the situation.