|Subject: AU: Black Hawks downed
(Deliverance pt 5 of 5)
May 23, 2002, Thursday
Black Hawks downed
Don Greenlees, Robert Garran
The explosive situation in Timor forced a last-minute rethink on the landing of Australian troops, write Don Greenlees and Robert Garran in the final extract from their book Deliverance
AT dawn on Monday, September 20, 1999, flight after flight of Hercules C130 transports landed at Dili's Comoro airport to begin Operation Stabilise. Australian troops in combat fatigues, laden with Kevlar helmets, body armour, heavy kit bags and Steyr rifles, descended in the pale early light from the back ramps of the aircraft.
It was an orderly landing, but it could have been different.
The soldiers arriving in Dili were wary. They had been exposed to months of media reports on the misdeeds of pro-integration militia and military. In the weeks before the landing, the media was saturated with reports of the brutality of militia "thugs", feeding widespread anger in the Australian public.
The Australian soldiers who were sent to East Timor in the first wave of the UN's International Force East Timor (Interfet) went with more faith in the justice of their cause, and support at home, than any departing army since World War II. But they were also primed for a hostile reception and, although well trained in the discriminating use of lethal force, confident about meeting any aggressors head on. "This is a conflict that Australia not only has a responsibility but a duty to be involved in," said 29-year-old Captain Cameron Evans, from Melbourne. "It makes a big difference to the blokes to know they do have the support of the people at home; to know when we go home we are not pariahs."
Waiting for Interfet's arrival was a divided and confused Indonesian military. Many soldiers, particularly those of East Timorese descent, were angry and hostile over the loss of Indonesian territory. To these troops, Interfet was an invading force. Their commanders exercised only loose control over them. Other soldiers -- mainly recent reinforcements from Kostrad, marine, engineer and airforce special forces units -- were acutely aware of the blow to Indonesian dignity caused by the loss of East Timor, and the zealous criticism of Indonesia in the West.
The wariness, even latent hostility, on both sides posed a real risk of violent confrontation. Indonesia's commander, Major-General Syahnakri, worried over the "very big possibility" of fighting between his men and those of Interfet. If a clash were to happen, the first day would be critical.
The risk of armed contact between Interfet and Indonesian troops had also been on the mind of Australia's army attache to Indonesia, Colonel Ken Brownrigg, who had co-ordinated the foreign and East Timorese evacuations in Dili with the Indonesian military. Brownrigg had noted the willingness of Indonesian commanders to assist the evacuations and was confident the potential for hostility with Interfet would be minimised by working closely with them.
As the senior Australian officer in East Timor, with a background in army intelligence, Brownrigg was a valuable source of advice for Interfet planners. Soon after preparations for Interfet's deployment began, Brownrigg rang the chief of the Australian Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie, and suggested force commander Major-General Peter Cosgrove make a preliminary visit to Dili. His reasoning was that a meeting between Cosgrove and Syahnakri would improve understanding between the two forces and help avoid armed engagement.
Later, Barrie discussed their idea with senior officers and the meeting was set. It was agreed that 24 hours before the Interfet deployment, Cosgrove would fly to Dili, meet Syahnakri and return to Darwin.
On September 19, Cosgrove arrived in Dili with a six-member security detail and a group of staff officers. In a display of confidence in Indonesian commanders, the security detail was left at the Australian consulate and Cosgrove's party went on to army headquarters under Indonesian security. In the meeting with Syahnakri, Cosgrove explained that Interfet would be arriving the following day, but gave him only an outline of his plans for the landings.
The commanders ate Indonesian ration packs of fried rice in the headquarters conference room and Cosgrove returned to Australia. He had been on the ground three hours. A stay-behind party included the security detail, a communications team and Cosgrove's co-ordination officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Joy. That evening at the consulate, awaiting the arrival of the first Interfet troops the next morning, Brownrigg for the first time asked Joy for a briefing on the operational details of the deployment. The earlier absence of secure communications meant that he knew when the force was coming but not how they would come.
Cosgrove's initial planning for Operation Stabilise took account of the possibility of his troops flying into a hot reception. His first objective was to secure the airfield at Comoro, in the city's west, and the wharf, in the city centre, to allow an unimpeded build-up of Interfet forces. "We needed to create an objective strength on the ground which meant that under the worst possible circumstances, with mischance, accident and everything going wrong, we still had enough combat troops there to defend themselves at both airfield and port," Cosgrove explained later.
His plan called for an element of surprise and the quick establishment of combat power on the ground. Australian Army Black Hawk helicopters would fly through the night from the RAAF base at Tindal in the Northern Territory, stopping en route in Darwin to refuel. At first light, they would arrive at Comoro and immediately land enough troops to defend the airfield. They would be directly followed by the first Hercules C130 transports, which would rapidly build up troop numbers. Once the airport was secure and the build-up begun, the Black Hawks would carry out a similar operation to gain control of the port. The aim was to land sufficient infantry, light armour and helicopters in the first hours to dominate Dili.
The planned helicopter landings made good military sense if the first Interfet troops on the ground were to come under fire. The downside was that such an unexpectedly assertive entry might have heightened the chances of conflict by surprising nervous Indonesian airforce special forces guarding Comoro airport. "They were twitchy even during the evacuations," Brownrigg said. "Most of them hadn't been outside the airfield for most of their time in East Timor and they had one sole mission in life and that was to protect that airfield. It was still Indonesian sovereign territory and it was also their exit point."
Brownrigg asked Joy when Interfet was going to co-ordinate the plan with Indonesian army headquarters. "Well, we're not," Joy replied. Brownrigg warned that without co-ordination there was the "high probability" of an armed clash on the first day that would set the tone for the whole operation. Brownrigg asked to speak to Cosgrove, and a secure link was set up to his headquarters in Darwin. Cosgrove listened to Brownrigg's concern and his assessment of the level of co-operation that could be expected from the Indonesians. Then he revised his plans. "What you need to be able to do is provide a guarantee that the airfield is secure when the Hercules first come in," he told Brownrigg.
Less than 12 hours before the start of the operation, the Black Hawk landing was cancelled. The first aircraft in would be the Hercules transports, and the helicopters would make an "administrative" entry 24 hours later. Brownrigg and Joy were given approval to go that night to see Syahnakri and explain details of Interfet's entry and the time of arrival. Syahnakri assured them of his co-operation.
At 4am, Brownrigg and several colleagues began moving around army posts at the airfield perimeter to ensure Indonesian soldiers knew that later that day Hercules aircraft would be making dozens of sorties to land armed, foreign soldiers. The post overlooking the southwestern side of the airfield would be a prime position to obstruct the landings.
The Australians roused soldiers in the post, apologised for waking them, and explained the international force would be arriving soon. Brownrigg asked whether they had enough coffee because Interfet soldiers would be joining them later in the morning. They drowsily responded they would be ready and explained how the incoming soldiers could reach their posts. Brownrigg had similar conversations at every post at the airfield, completing the task only minutes before the first Hercules arrived.
On the first plane were soldiers who had participated in the evacuations the previous week and knew the routine. They came off the aircraft, went straight to the nearest Indonesian soldiers, gave them a slap on the arm and offered them a cigarette. Brownrigg, dressed in the gold braid of his office uniform, drove in a Land Rover to greet every Hercules as it arrived. He told the troops they would not be shot at; that the airfield was secure.
The tension among Interfet and Indonesian troops was palpable. But a potentially explosive arrival had been defused. The planned helicopter landings at the docks were also abandoned: Australian troops travelled by road in trucks supplied by the Indonesian army.
Deliverance: The Inside Story of East Timor's Fight for Freedom (Allen & Unwin, $35) will be published on June 1.
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