Subject: John Martinkus: Of coup plots and shadowy foreigners

The New Zealand Herald

June 22, 2006 Thursday

John Martinkus: Of coup plots and shadowy foreigners

The East Timorese Prime Minister has added to the murk surrounding the country's descent into violence by accusing opposition groups backed by foreigners of conspiring to overthrow his Government in an armed coup.

And his claims have been backed by senior sources within the Defence Force, who say there have been three coup plots in the past 18 months.

Mari Alkatiri, himself accused of arranging a hit squad to eliminate his critics, has for the first time given his version of what led to the Dili chaos in late May.

The breakdown of law and order led to 130,000 internal refugees and the deployment of 2200 troops from Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia.

He accused opposition groups and their foreign supporters of repeatedly trying to convince prominent commanders in the East Timorese armed forces to overthrow his Government.

"They were always trying to get the command of [former guerrilla fighters] Falintil, F-FDTL [defence forces]. They tried to convince the command to order and participate in a coup. They failed."

He claimed his opponents then tried to weaken the influence of the military.

"They tried to break Falintil and they did it by bringing out of the barracks almost 600."

He says his political opponents exploited ethnic divisions within the police force (PNTL) to create unrest.

"They succeeded in dividing the people within the PNTL. This is the whole strategy. Then they put groups of [police] against groups of [soldiers] in confrontation. And they succeeded again. This is why I requested assistance from outside," he said.

Senior sources within the armed forces command confirmed that not one but three separate approaches had been made to its leadership to lead a coup against Alkatiri in the past 18 months.

I was able to confirm that following the weeks of mass demonstrations against Alkatiri's Government in April 2005 the Defence Force commander, Brigadier Taur Matan Ruak, was approached to lead a coup.

He rejected the offer. Again early this year he was approached and requested to lead a coup in a meeting with two prominent East Timorese leaders and two foreign nationals. Again he refused, reportedly telling them it was against the constitution and would set an unacceptable precedent.

One of his leading deputies, Lieutenant Colonel Falur Rate Laek, a former regional commander from Falintil and a veteran of the war against Indonesia, was also approached by the same two local leaders and foreign nationals. He also refused and reported the incident to his command.

Due to the sensitivity of the information and the implications for the current situation, the nationalities of the foreigners were not revealed.

The armed forces believe that last month's lawlessness was an attempt to divide and destroy them as retribution for the Army's command refusing to take part in a coup.

The Prime Minister was adamant the violence was orchestrated as a part of a programme to topple his Government.

"It has to be institutions, some organisations, inside assisted by others outside," he said. "I think there are outside groups from Australia maybe from Indonesia but not the Governments. I am not accusing the Government of Indonesia or the Government of Australia. But still I do believe there are outside groups. We need some time to investigate this but the whole plan was very well done and very well executed."

It's not the first time Alkatiri has called the attempts to oust him an attempted coup. He continued to deny the accusations of a hit squad against him and his Government and dismissed them as part of a misinformation campaign run by his opposition.

He said the campaign was being run by "conservative elements in institutions" in East Timor and abroad.

Allegations against the Government of Alkatiri proved difficult to verify.

The claims that at least 60 people were killed by the Army following demonstrations in late April and buried in a mass grave to the west of the city could not be checked. The priest who had claimed to have a list with 67 names on it denied he had a list.

Then there was the allegation about Vincente "Rai Los" da Concecao, the leader of a group of armed resistance fighters, who says Alkatiri's orders were carried out by former Interior Minister Rogerio Lobato, a close ally of the PM.

Da Concecao's 30 fighters were said to be based in the mountains above the town of Liquica and equipped with automatic rifles. He claimed to have received the rifles from Alkatiri and Lobato, who is now under house arrest.

Journalists who went to meet him were surprised to be directed to the house of the Carrascalao family in the hills above Liquica.

They said he had told them he was issued the weapons to kill opponents of Alkatiri's ruling Fretilin Party.

The Carrascalao family have a history of opposition to Fretilin going back to a leadership role in the UDT party which fought a civil war against Fretilin in 1975.

Alkatiri said that he knew three of the men involved in the "Rai Los" group as they had attended a Fretilin conference in May and he had briefly met them. He said he told them only to enforce security and not to kill opponents as they claimed.

Sources in the armed forces said the Rai Los men had participated in the attack on the Army base in Tacitolu. Soldiers said da Concecao was a former Falintil fighter who had been sacked in 2004 for embezzling pay cheques.

Before the allegations about supplying weapons to da Concecao were made public Alkatiri said he dismissed them as more opposition misinformation.

"The best way to overthrow somebody from power is to demonise them. That is exactly what they are trying to do and how to do it? [By] passing to media information like this that this man has a secret army with the objective to eliminate others ... instead of having killed someone from the opposition what they have done is really just to fight against the [Army].

"They fought against the [Army] on May 24 in Tacitolu. What kind of secret Fretilin group is this that they are also fighting against the [Army]. This is contradictory," said Alkatiri.

While frustrations within the Timorese armed forces ignited the latest crisis, it was preceded by riots against Alkatiri's leadership in December 2001 and a prolonged protest led by the church against his Government in April 2005.

Last February a group of soldiers from the country's west - which grew from 140 to 591 - signed a petition claiming discrimination inside the 1300-strong Army. In March they were dismissed from the armed forces.

However, as events began to unfold the dispute quickly became the start of a series of calls for Alkatiri to resign. The Prime Minister was in no doubt what had taken place. He kept referring to it as an attempted coup.

The petitioners' demonstration turned violent on April 28 when he ordered the Army to take control. Police officers ran away and in some cases joined the violence. The petitioners marched back to the west of Dili and were kept there by the Army. Three people were killed in fighting and the violence began to spread.

Last week, recalling his arrival in Dili, the commander of the Australian forces, Brigadier Mick Slater, said there were two types of gang violence.

"There were definitely the opportunistic gutless thugs ... I think they were probably the major source of violence in town. There were definitely groups, let's call them gangs, that were definitely being manipulated and co-ordinated by other people from outside that gang environment. I feel very, very strongly that that was the case."

Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta says Alkatiri's claims of a coup are "nonsense". "If there was a coup attempt the Prime Minister should elaborate. A coup attempt by who?"

That is a question that no one at the moment, from the military leadership, to the Prime Minister, to the commander of the Australian intervention force and the President himself, is willing to answer.

* Herald correspondent John Martinkus was in Dili last week.


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