Subject: NZ Herald: Ambush on a Timor jungle trail

Ambush on a Timor jungle trail


Official papers finally reveal the story behind Private Leonard Manning's death.


The New Zealand Herald

Suai farmer and militia member Yacobus Bere and about eight other men watched Private Leonard Manning's patrol advance along a jungle track.

The militiamen later told a Jakarta court they were herding stray cattle near the East Timorese border.

Whatever they were doing, they were heavily armed.

Private Manning stopped and looked up to his left. No one will ever know why.

Maybe he had noticed something on the track. He was, after all, a highly skilled scout, a talent first noticed by his parents during family bush walks and honed by the Army.

Maybe he had heard what was lurking on the high ground.

When the other five soldiers in the patrol heard shots, their first thought was that someone had accidentally fired his weapon. As the following rounds rang out, the soldier in front of Private Manning realised this was an ambush. Private Phillip Cheater watched his mate fall to the ground.

Forensic pathology reports would record that Private Manning was looking directly towards the barrel of Bere's gun. The ambush near the peak of a steep hill called Foho Debululik on July 24, 2000, became the subject of a military Court of Inquiry and an Indonesian murder trial, although the public would learn little of what emerged in either of these hearings. The Court of Inquiry was conducted in private and only a summary of its findings was released.

Claims that Private Manning did not die instantly, that his patrol abandoned him, and that there was a cover-up swirled around and surfaced in a magazine article this year.

A Weekend Herald investigation can now reveal the roles of key people in the incident.

Government documents obtained under the Official Information Act show that an East Timorese man, Hermenigildo do Reis, had tipped off the United Nations peacekeepers about militiamen roaming near Tilomar.

Mr dos Reis told the trial in Jakarta that he was frightened by the armed militia and alerted the New Zealanders, who were patrolling that area as part of their peacekeeping duties.

Private Manning's patrol tracked the militia group through the night and into the next day. The 24-year-old Putaruru soldier and 20-year-old Private Cheater alternated as first and second scout.

About 10.30am, Private Cheater was in the front armed with a Steyr rifle, while Private Manning followed with the section machinegun.

The pair knew how each other operated. The close friends worked together regularly and were planning to go on a hunting trip when they returned home.

When the shooting started, the New Zealand patrol commander yelled at his men to carry out a "withdrawal under fire", scrambling through the elephant grass to the side of the track.

As the rest of the patrol regrouped, they realised two were missing.

Back up on the track, Private Cheater was risking his life. As the militia kept shooting, he crawled back to where Private Manning lay in an awkward position, but realised his mate was dead.

Pathologist Timothy Koelmeyer would testify that Private Manning died instantly from a shot above his left eye. Private Cheater scurried down to rejoin his patrol. He reported that he believed Private Manning had been killed. From up on the hill, the militia advanced, firing weapons and throwing grenades.

The New Zealanders used their grenade-launcher to fire back. It stopped the assault.

The trial heard that Bere was hit in the hand, although he claimed the New Zealanders fired first.

The depleted patrol joined up with other members of the New Zealand battalion down the hill. Some wanted to return immediately but orders were given to take a more methodical approach.

The area was sealed off and soldiers slowly moved in. Private Manning's body was found by his company sergeant-major, Warrant Officer Phil Burgess, just before dark. His throat had been slashed and both ears cut off.

Bere told an Indonesian Army officer, Andri Gurawan, that he had mutilated the body, though he later claimed he had been tortured.

In court, Bere maintained he was a freedom fighter who acted in self-defence.

New Zealand diplomats who observed the trial say Bere appealed to the Indonesian judges "not to allow this nation to betray me".

"In East Timor, we were praised as high as the sky," said Bere, with a Indonesian flag wrapped around his head. But after the independence referendum and the withdrawal of Indonesian forces from East Timor, "we were stomped on".

A cable from the New Zealand Embassy in Jakarta says Bere then sang an Indonesian patriot song from the independence struggle against the Dutch.

"Bere concluded that after fighting under and for the Indonesian flag, he was ready to stand trial," says the cable. Trial evidence showed Bere was a member of the pro-Indonesian militia group Laksaur and that he had been armed with military equipment by a militia commander.

Some believe this highlighted the involvement of Indonesian security forces in the arming and supporting of militia. But Foreign Minister Phil Goff told the Weekend Herald he did not believe there was any direct evidence of Indonesian forces handing Bere the fateful gun.

"That's not to say ... that perhaps rogue elements within the [Indonesian Army] continued to co-operate with some areas of the militia, but I don't think there is anything that would suggest that was a formal policy," said Mr Goff.

The Indonesian judges sentenced Bere to six years' imprisonment. Three other men who admitted being with him were found not guilty.

The case is now before appeal authorities. Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials say a decision could take days or weeks.

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