Subject: E Timor army denies abuse claims 

E Timor army denies abuse claims

By Lucy Williamson

BBC News, Dili

At sunset, Dili's sweeping coastline echoes back the sounds of the city: the sellers of snacks and cigarettes; the tinny music leaking from foreign-owned bars; the occasional motorbike razoring along the beach road.

One wonders what it all sounds like to Gastao Salsinha, under lock and key in a military house.

For two years the noises he slept to were those of the mountainous jungle where he hid with his men - almost 600 of them, former soldiers whose sacking from the army led to a spate of political violence.

Their complaint - that the army discriminated against those from the west of the country - opened up old wounds in the capital between Timorese from the eastern districts and those from the west.

It was while negotiations to resolve this dispute were going on in February that some of the group launched a double attack on the president and prime minister.

Now Mr Salsinha and others suspected of involvement in that attack are in custody in Dili.

But after two years of failing to catch them, how did East Timor's armed forces get them down to the capital without firing a shot?

Special joint command

Filomeno Paixao is the man in charge of the operation; head of a specially-created unit combining the army and the police under one joint command.

First, he told me, it had been his conviction that Mr Salsinha would surrender given the right opportunity.

The army had spent a lot of time, he said, spreading the word that they would not shoot Mr Salsinha; and getting the local community, his family, and church leaders to use their influence with him.

The joint command has been widely praised for its success.

Two years ago, during the crisis following the sacking of the soldiers, the army and police were shooting each other in the streets of Dili; now they are pulling off sensitive psychological operations in East Timor's rural areas.

Commander Paixao says the operation relied on persuasion. But some of those close to the operation say it went further than that.

Villages 'threatened'

The road through Ermera's mountainous interior eventually gives out, and reaching the villages targeted by the army means coaxing a car up steep shale paths and along narrow, grassed-over tracks.

In the first place we stopped in was a hamlet of coffee farmers. They gathered round to describe the effects of the army operation.

They told us that they were not allowed to go to their fields for a week. The army threatened that if Salsinha did not surrender, they would not harvest their crops.

Gastao Salsinha prepares to hands over his weapons on 29 April

Gastao Salsinha topped the list of most wanted rebels

This is coffee country.

Coffee is East Timor's main non-oil export, and a financial lifeline for people here.

According to the UN, blanket restrictions like the ones they described would be illegal - even during military operations.

But that is not all they had to say.

One young man told me: "When the army arrived, they gathered everyone together and said if the rebels didn't hand themselves in, they'd kill us."

"That's true," his friend said.

There are other, far more serious, allegations being talked about here, but no evidence for them as yet.


Rumours travel fast in East Timor, and there are political reasons why the people of Ermera might want to discredit the army - this is, after all, a western district, and the place Salsinha and the other rebels chose to run to.

But then there are reasons, too, why the army might want to put pressure on the people here.

At a neighbouring village, we met the brother of one of the rebel soldiers the army was looking for.

He told me: "They took me from my house and beat me on my back and stomach, using their hands, feet, and also guns."

"They were asking 'Where is your brother?' I told them I didn't know, but they beat me anyway."

His village chief told us there were eight others from this community who had been through the same experience. According to him, one was an elderly woman.

Ermera is the place the rebels chose for protection, but when I talked to people about Mr Salsinha and his family, they were angry.


"Mad" and "furious" are the words they used.

And that chill wind has reached the house of Mr Salsinha's wife, down in the district capital, Gleno.

During the operation, she said, local people began issuing threats against her family.

It was one of the factors - though she says not the over-riding one - that helped persuade her husband to turn himself in.

Commander Paixao denies the army ill-treated any civilians during the operation.

He told me he had sent two teams to the area to investigate reports of abuses, but that none had been found to be true.

Investigations are also being carried out by the UN and the Timorese parliament.

The joint command, meanwhile, has not yet been given a date for its disbandment.

Many analysts and politicians agree deep-seated reform of East Timor's army and police is needed to avoid future crises, but the military's success in bringing in Mr Salsinha and his men could well make that job harder rather than easier.

Mr Salsinha may be back in town, his rump of a rebel army may be neutralised, and the security situation may be judged to be calmer.

But there are many other challenges that this unstable country has yet to address.

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