Subject: Tragedy in the making

The Bulletin

Tragedy in the making

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Australian troops have been sent to arrest a folk hero in East Timor. The renegade army officer is now threatening to kill any Australian soldiers who come near him. Paul Toohey reports.

Reinado is tense and very angry. It is Wednesday morning and he is holed up in Same, on the south side of East Timor. He is furious that Australian SAS troops have surrounded him and says he will "take down any Australian in my line of fire".

Major Alfredo Reinado is walking a delicate line between hero and renegade. As the leader of East Timor's military police, he deserted last year with a small band in disgust after East Timorese soldiers in the F-FDTL - the army - had fired upon unarmed protesting civilians.

Reinado spoke for the people and won widespread sympathy for his argument that the army was there to protect, not shoot, civilians. But when he started engaging in firefights with the F-FDTL, he was eventually arrested for murder.

Reinado and others escaped from Dili's Becora prison in August, last year, although the situation was farcical. Australian peacekeepers stayed in touch with him and there appeared to be a loose agreement to let him wander, so long as he did not use his weapons.

Then, on Sunday, it was claimed Reinado and his men robbed two police compounds, stealing weapons. President Xanana Gusmao lost patience and ordered the Australians to bring him in.

And that is where The Bulletin found him on Wednesday, in Same, talking - or, to be precise, yelling - down the line as Australians surrounded him.

"I'm still alive," says Reinado. "The Australian troops want to take my life, maybe today, maybe later. There's a special force, surrounding me. There are helicopters landing in the cornfields, women and children are leaving their houses.

"Why are they doing this? People very hungry, there's not enough food, and the helicopter lands and destroys all the food in the cornfield? Is that good? Are they going to save us from this communist government of East Timor? I'm very sad, my friend, at the moment I'm very sad."

Reinado was trained in part by the Australian military and is regarded as a highly capable soldier. But he came to despise deposed East Timorese prime minister, Mari Alkatiri, and has come to see his successor, Jose Ramos Horta, as no better.

"Ramos Horta and Mari Alkatiri are the founders of the Fretilin communist government," he says. "They have been communists since 1975, but they wear a democratic mask. The East Timorese government is supporting communism -- it still continues to this day. Ramos Horta makes this crisis more and more worse.

"They didn't care about the life of the people, the constitution of the nation, and your government allows troops to come here and support this communist government. It's for the oil and gas - that's why they [Australia] are here.

"East Timorese and Australians, once you could never separate them. Now they are separated. My situation is I'm surrounded by Australian troops. I have a message for Australian people: we still like you in our hearts.

"I don't want my country to be dirtied by the blood of any of your Australian soldiers. But you can't intervene in our judicial system. That's not what you're here for. Respect our sovereignty and our judicial system.

"I'm no enemy of Australia. But tell the Australian people I will take down any Australian in my line of fire. It is my right to defend myself for the dignity and the rights of the people. Don't blame me. I'm very shameful. I will defend against communism, I'm doing a favour for Australia. I never hurt any Australian citizen, my friend. Please think twice."

Will you consider surrender? "Why I have to surrender? What I do wrong? I didn't do any crime. Why do they want to arrest me? I did not do anything wrong. They have to respect me, the constitution of this country. Does Australia like this? Running around in our country with guns?"

Can you see Australians from where you are positioned? "They are here! Twenty-four hours of flying around, keeping an eye on me. They're about 500m away."

But haven't you been talking over things with the Australians? "Talking over? They never invited me to talk. They never even investigated the killings [by the F-FDTL]. They just decided what they have to do. I feel ashamed to be a friend of Australia."

What is going to happen now? "You tell me. Any Australian approach in my eye view, I will take them down. I will surrender to my law, but to no international troops. Never."

It is said you robbed police stations of weapons. Did you? "Stole? I didn't steal weapons. That's propaganda. Every one makes this same statement. Those policemen have joined me. Did I use weapons to harm anyone so far? No. I have weapons to stand and defend the life of the people."

But you have been talking to Australians while you've been on the run, right? "I never closed the door to them. I've been talking to them, but they've also been talking to these f**king communists [in power in East Timor]. I'm not stupid."

Do you no longer trust Australians? "I trust the people of Australia, but not the f**king stupid politicians who send your forces here. The stupidity of your leaders makes me shamed."

What is your exact position? "Ask your troops."

One thing for certain: Reinado is good to his word. If he sees an armed Australian, he will shoot to kill. But the last thing the Australians want to do is kill a folk hero. The situation seems set to end in tragedy. 

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