DILI (Reuters) - East Timor athletes training for the Olympics face obstacles that range from a lack of cash to buy even basic equipment to sporadic gang violence and fears of chaos following an assassination attempt against President Jose Ramos-Horta.
East Timor was plunged into a fresh crisis on Monday when rebel gunmen shot Ramos-Horta, a 1996 Nobel Peace Prize winner, and riddled Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao's car with bullets. Ramos-Horta is in serious condition in an Australian hospital, while Gusmao narrowly escaped the gunmen's bullets.
The violence may further hamper preparations by marathon runners who hope to represent Asia's youngest nation at the Olympics in August.
East Timor runners training for the Games have already discovered that the road to Beijing is paved with obstacles.
"Based on our programme, training should be done every day but sporadic incidents like gangs throwing rocks on the street makes us afraid," said Antonio Soares Xavier, who was conducting a training session with athletes in the capital Dili.
Factional bloodshed two years ago killed 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes, with foreign troops needed to restore order and setting back development in what was already one of the world's poorest nations.
A new state of emergency declared after the shooting of Ramos-Horta, gang violence, vandalism and arson still persist. An unemployment rate estimated at about 50 percent has helped fan a gang culture among bored youths.
Trainer Xavier said that 42 athletes, some of whom are living in camps for displaced people dotted around the capital after their houses were torched, were trying to train for events ranging from 100 metres to the marathon.
He conceded that it was a tough job.
"We haven't got the funds for athletes' needs such as training kit, food and training centers."
Despite the difficult circumstances, he paid tribute to the commitment of the athletes.
"I think some of our athletes are ready to compete in any competition, they are ready physically and in terms of discipline."
East Timor voted in 1999 to break away from more than 23 years of Indonesian rule in a violence-marred referendum.
The nation of about 1 million people became fully independent in 2002 after a period of U.N. administration but regular bouts of violence have since revealed the fragility of the new institutions.
The president of the country's National Olympics Committee said that East Timor had been given special dispensation to send several athletes despite not reaching the qualifying bar.
"We are not participating because of merit or our athletes qualifying but the Olympic movement wants to help nations which have not met the minimum standard like East Timor and Samoa to participate," said Joao Carascalao, adding that the nation faced formidable obstacles to raise standards.
"Athletes are not prepared well, the athletics' federation is not functioning and the trainer is not qualified. We will not make progress in sport if we do not change our habits."
Some athletes from the former Portuguese colony recently left to train in Thailand, Portugal and Macau before final selection, helped by Olympic money.
Carascalao urged the private sector and government to help cash-strapped athletes.
"We haven't the money so the government and private sector should sponsor East Timor athletes participating in the Olympic Games," he said.
"We are not just preparing athletes but also preparing sports infrastructure, we really need the government to help build sports facilities in East Timor," said Carascalao.
He said that Olympic money was also helping to rehabilitate the ageing Indonesian-built stadium in Dili.
Last year, East Timor's soccer side had to play a World Cup qualifying match against Hong Kong in Bali because the stadium did not meet international standards.
Marathon athlete Aguida Fatima Amaral, 38, who works as a civil servant, said she was waiting to see if she was picked to compete in Beijing.
"If I do not qualify it will give a chance to the new generation to represent East Timor," said Amaral while training with other athletes in Tasi-Tolu Comoro, west of Dili.
Amaral made an emotional debut in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney under an Olympic flag. She managed 43rd place in the marathon.
But she went on to represent her nation in the Athens Olympics and also took part in the Asian Games and in the Arafura Games in Darwin, Australia.
She also helped found the Laulara sports club to develop athletics in East Timor.
Another less experienced athlete, Silvina da Conciecao, said she had been training intensively for six months.
"I hope I will win medals at the Olympic games if I am selected," said the 22-year-old.
National selection for Beijing is expected to take place in mid-March.
Writing by Ed Davies; editing by Megan Goldin