Subject: Bulletin: Border Raiders

The Bulletin (Australia) January 22, 2003


Australian troops who abandoned a border post have been blamed by East Timorese for allowing a murderous incursion by pro-Jakarta militia, notes John Martinkus.

On the night of January 4 in Atsabe, a small East Timorese village 30km from the Indonesian border, gunmen surrounded the house of the village head. One of them entered and shot dead the only occupant, the chief's nephew. The same night two others were shot dead, execution style, in the same area. Another group of gunmen kidnapped three well-known pro-independence locals; two of them were found dead three days later. They were surrounded by shell casings from, among others, Indonesian military-issue SKS automatic weapons. The third man escaped and told police he recognised five of his kidnappers as former pro-Jakarta militia from the area.

It was the worst incursion since the Australian-led Interfet force chased the militia from the border area in October 1999. However, this time, according to locals, Australian troops should take some responsibility for the incident. Soldiers from the Darwin-based 5/7 RAR battalion are responsible for the security of the northern end of the border. But despite warnings that militia incursions were planned for December and January, the Australians withdrew from their platoon-sized border post at a village called Nunura in December. According to Paulo Maia, a former pro-independence guerilla who has worked for Australian troops in the area, the removal of the post left a gap in the border that gave access to the Nunura river valley that militia used to trek deeper into East Timor. "They saw the Australians move back from their posts and made their plans," he said.

The progress of four groups of armed militia through Nunura began in December, Maia says. And, according to information from East Timorese in the West Timor town of Atambua, the groups were armed and controlled by former pro-Jakarta militia head Joao Tavares, who is still living in Atambua.

The plan was to send groups of 11 men to the towns of Hatolia, Atsabe, Liquica and Maubara, all in western East Timor, where they were to assassinate local leaders who had fought for independence. (Only the group that reached Atsabe seems to have been successful.) This information was well known beforehand but ignored by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force command. After the Atsabe attack, East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao blamed the UN for ignoring the warnings of locals. The newly formed East Timor Defence Force asked the UN to operate in the area immediately after the attack. That request was granted and has resulted in the arrest of 130 militia suspects in the Hatolia-Atsabe area in the past two weeks.

East Timorese police investigating the killings have no doubt the men involved were militia. "It is a five- or six-hour walk from here to the border and we have infor­mation that they are back in Atambua," said Jorge Fonseca from the Atsabe police. On January 8, three militia were seen filling their Indonesian military-issue canteens in the Nunura river. More than 100 locals gave chase. The group responded with automatic gunfire before fleeing towards the border.

According to Maia, who was present, they left behind Indonesian military equipment. The Australian troops 5km away in their new base in Mouliana were unaware the incident had occurred.

A press statement released by the UN two weeks after the attack stated the incident had taken place and that peacekeepers had been rushed to the area. It also acknowledged that the East Timorese Defence Force was now operating in the area. Peacekeeping HQ in Dili refused to comment further.

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