Subject: Age: A stealthy patrol closes in on East Timor's militia

The Age Saturday 16 December 2000

A stealthy patrol closes in on East Timor's militia


Australian troops with the UN peacekeeping force in East Timor on patrol in the remote mountain terrain in Bobonaro district investigate reports of militia activity. Picture: MARK DODD

The soldiers called it "ghost walking" and like phantoms in the cool, pre-dawn twilight, the reconnaissance scouts prepared to break camp.

On cue, others fall in behind. No words are spoken, trip flares are quietly disarmed as soldiers silently roll out from under their mosquito nets, pack their swags, sling their weapons and move out from under the cover of the lantana bushes growing in profusion on the thickly forested ridge.

This is an Australian fighting patrol. It consists of 19 heavily armed soldiers charged with investigating reports of militia activity along a series of trails in remote mountain country in western Bobonaro district. If any armed and hostile militia are encountered, the rules are simple - they will be shot.

Last month, in one of the biggest counter-insurgency operations launched by Australian UN peacekeepers, more than 110 troops backed by helicopters and armored vehicles were deployed in Bobonaro district, a 10-square-kilometre wild mountainous tract peppered with forest trails and watercourses.

At the Balibo headquarters of the 1st Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, commanders decided this operation would be coordinated from Poetete, a strategic small village.

At daybreak at their base in Aida Belaten, troops from Alpha Company, 1RAR, receive last-minute briefings, collect weapons, shoulder 30-kilogram packs and board New Zealand air force Bell Hueys and French-built Super Pumas chartered by the UN.

Twenty minutes later, the helicopters land on a narrow grassy ridge behind Poetete. Two Falintil liaison officers operating with the Australians, commanders Paulo and Beluli, veterans of the 24-year independence struggle, are among the first to meet Poetete's village chief. The UN peacekeepers are welcome.

"We're here to make them (villagers) feel secure and find out what has happened here for the past 12 months. A big part of our success is having Falintil with us. They are seen as protectors of the people," said operations commander Major Jamie Patten-Richens.

Poetete's outlying areas had not been previously patrolled and there was concern that it was now vulnerable to militia infiltration. Security sweeps are combined with civil action programs. Sergeant Dion McRae is in charge of Civil Military Affairs, the army's contact with the local community.

Poetete's primary school teacher says he teaches English and Portuguese to 30 children who squat in a shed with no walls or furniture.

Nine refugees have just returned to Poetete and the village carpenter is too busy repairing houses to spend time on the school. With the onset of the wet season, the teacher would like some walls. He also wants chalk, writing material and text books. Sergeant McRae promises school kits with pads and pencils as soon as possible.

The company medic, Corporal Phil Macleod, takes the pulse of a girl with suspected dysentery, a common ailment in remote villages where hygiene is poor. An 82-year-old man calls in, complaining of "itching in his stomach".

In the nearby Moto Marobo river valley a patrol of armored vehicles is getting under way, under the command of Lieutenant Damien Sanford. Supporting the infantry operation are three light armored vehicles (LAVs) from Darwin.

These 14-tonne all-terrain off-roaders are armed with two machine guns, an automatic 25-millimetre cannon and equipped with night-vision capability.

"The militia are really intimidated by these big steel monsters," said driver Corporal Shawn Gibbons. But stealthy they are not. The high-pitch whine of the diesel turbines can be heard for miles.

Intelligence reports have identified the river as a militia corridor. The LAVs are positioned in thick bush on a sharp bend and then camouflaged.

Lieutenant Sanford radios his position to Poetete and settles in for the evening. The LAV crews talk in whispers and as night falls the first fireflies appear, flickering candescent bursts against the dark outline of the bush.

Throughout the night two men remain on watch, sitting side-by-side in the gun turret monitoring any movement along the riverbed using sophisticated night sights. An infra-red trip-wire is set behind the camp to warn of intruders sneaking up behind the vehicles.

Back in Poetete soldiers from 3 Platoon are ordered to "sweep" a series of ridge lines lying north-east of the village to check for signs of militia activity. Under the command of Lieutenant Stephen Thorpe, the men must apply camouflage paint to their faces.

Lieutenant Thorpe said he expected "100 per cent" concentration from his men because one slip could cost a life. "Tex", a 29-year-old corporal and Somalia veteran, has the most dangerous job walking "point" at the head of the patrol, scouting the best route, staying alert against an ambush.

The patrol lasts three days. Rise before daybreak, march an hour, have a brew, and move on, then rest during the heat of day and resume the patrol late afternoon.

When news of the peacekeepers' arrival spreads through the mountains, more than 120 villagers tramped down to Poetete to meet the Australians - evidence of the warm rapport between the two.

Later that evening a community cassette player blasted traditional Timorese music in a madcap dance celebration that lasted until dawn - Poetete's way of saying thanks.

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