Australian Federal Police said on Wednesday that international police working in East Timor had confirmed that Major Alfredo Reinado and 55 other inmates broke out of Becora jail in the capital, Dili, earlier in the day. Reports differed as to whether the total number of escapees was 56 or 57.
"It is understood 56 prisoners are currently unaccounted for, one of those being Alfredo Reinado," a police spokesman said.
Brigadier Mick Slater, the Australian commander of the international security forces in the country, said that they had escaped when visitors to the prison created a distraction that allowed the inmates to simply walk out of the front gate in view of the guards.
Slater told Australian radio: "The jail break appears to have been a fairly simple matter. The prisoner Reinado and about 56 others essentially walked out the front gate under the eyes of the Timorese prison guards.
"It was visiting time and there were a large number of visitors in the prison. There was some kind of a ruckus caused by visitors and then the prisoners were able to walk out the front gate."
His account differed to that of Carlos Sarmento, the prison warden, who said that inmates broke down a prison wall and blamed the escape on a shortage of staff.
International forces sealed Dili off within minutes of the breakout.
Reinado and 20 followers were arrested by Australian soldiers in July. He was being held on charges of attempted murder and firearms offences.
A series of protests in East Timor degenerated into widespread violence in May after 600 members of the former Portuguese colony's 1,400-strong army were sacked.
Alfredo Reinado called for the
prime minister to resign
In late May, Reinado led his followers into the mountains behind Dili and refused to give up their weapons until Mari Alkatiri resigned as prime minister.
An estimated 100,000 people were displaced and at least 20 killed in the violence which led to the deployment of a 2,500-strong UN peacekeeping force from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand and Portugal.
The revolt stemmed from divisions between troops from the east and those from the west of the country, which was ruled by Jakarta from 1976 until an independence referendum in 1999 which resulted in a bloody crackdown.