By Tito Bello
DILI (Reuters) - Rebel soldiers blamed for last month's attacks on East Timor's president and prime minister have escaped a siege by security forces, the military said on Thursday.
Hundreds of joint security forces had surrounded the rebels for several days in the jungle in Ermera district, 75 km (47 miles) west of the capital, Dili, but they refused to surrender, operations commander Major Virgilio dos Anjos Ular said.
"They could have been killed if we had wanted to kill them yesterday, but we changed our mind and just called on them to give up," he told Reuters by telephone.
He said some residents had helped the rebels, led by renegade army lieutenant Gastao Salsinha, move to another place late on Wednesday.
Dos Anjos Ular said the operation was continuing and urged the people to encourage Salsinha and his rebels to turn themselves in to prevent bloodshed.
Rebels attacked the home of President Jose Ramos-Horta on February 11, seriously wounding him during a gunfight. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao escaped unhurt in a separate attack the same morning.
Ramos-Horta, recovering in a hospital in northern Australia, has named the gunman who shot and nearly killed him, an Australian newspaper reported.
The gunman was one of 600 rebel soldiers sacked after going on strike in 2006, the Age newspaper said, quoting Ramos-Horta's brother.