Subject: Australia Army chief clears militia of killings

Courier Mail

February 6, 2003, Thursday

Army chief clears militia of killings

Mark Dodd

THE commander of Australia's frontline troops in East Timor has rejected claims that Indonesian-backed militia thugs murdered six civilians in a remote mountain village.

Commanding officer of the Darwin-based 5/7th Mechanised Infantry Battalion, Lt Colonel Michael Lean, said the attack on a remote hamlet near Atsabe on January 4 was almost certainly the work of common criminals intent on robbery.

Colonel Lean, originally from Launceston, revealed Australian Army intelligence had linked the murders to the theft of almost $80,000 in cash as well as an unspecified quantity of jewellery.

The cash was probably being used to buy timber or coffee, Colonel Lean said.

In another recent incident a man carrying $250,000 in cash had been caught by troops trying to cross the border from West to East Timor, he said.

Strong evidence pointed to the criminals trying to disguise their violent attack as the work of pro-Jakarta militias.

Colonel Lean's claims contradict assertions by East Timor's foreign minister, Jose Ramos Horta, that militias, backed by rogue members of Indonesia's feared Kopassus special forces, infiltrated across the border to launch the attack from their base in the Indonesian border town of Atambua in West Timor.

"It is my firm belief that there are no militia and no armed groups crossing from West Timor to East Timor carrying weapons," Colonel Lean said.

"It doesn't mean that there are not certain criminal elements with access to weapons who committed these horrific acts in Atsabe."

The attacks prompted the Dili Government and East Timor Defence Force to accuse the United Nations Peacekeeping Force and Australian troops guarding part of the border of insufficient co-operation and support.

Diplomatic sources in Dili said President Xanana Gusmao would prefer UN forces left earlier than planned, so security responsibilities could be transferred to the East Timorese army and police.

Colonel Lean's view was backed by Thai and Singaporean soldiers who broke up an extortion racket last month and arrested 18 members of a paramilitary group.

Thai liaison officer Major Nutt Sri-In said they believed the problem in East Timor was "internal and not from outside".

Colonel Lean said the criminals' tactics were designed to strike terror into the minds of villagers still traumatised after the violence that followed the 1999 vote for independence.

"The mere fact they used balaclavas to hide their identity means they were probably from that area," he said.

Irritated at the suggestion his troops were less than competent in securing the rugged frontier, Colonel Lean offered his own warning to armed militia contemplating cross-border attacks.

"I can assure anyone coming across that border with a weapon threatening an Australian soldier we will shoot them dead -- one shot, one kill."

The peacekeepers are scheduled to leave in June 2004.

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