Subject: AU: Troops bust Timor gang

The Australian March 7, 2003

Troops bust Timor gang

By Mark Phillips

AUSTRALIAN troops in East Timor have broken up an organised crime gang after a gun battle that left a gangster dead and another fighting for his life.

It was the first live fire incident involving Australian troops in East Timor for almost two years.

Australian and Fijian soldiers serving as part of the United Nations peacekeeping force tracked down the gang in a mountain hideaway in the country's west after it had terrorised local villagers in a series of ambushes and robberies.

After a short gun battle last Thursday, one wounded gangster was captured.

The body of another gangster was found nearby. He was still clutching a gun and a hand grenade. He is believed to have also been wounded.

The gang was believed to have been behind an armed hold-up of a bus at the remote village of Aidabeleten ­ close to the border with Indonesia ­ on February 24 when two people were killed and nine injured.

A major land and helicopter manhunt of the western Atabae and Bobonaro district was quickly launched for the group, led by the commander of the Darwin-based 5/7 Royal Australian Regiment, Lt-Col Michael Lean.

Army spokesman Brigadier Mike Hannan said yesterday that the joint Australian-Fijian battalion of about 300 soldiers swept through the district and cordoned off major roads.

They received an important tip-off two days after the bus attack from farmers living about 8km from the site of the hold-up about the theft of corn from their crops.

The next day, last Thursday, they discovered a small, hidden campsite not far from the farms. They came across an unoccupied sentry position, and then saw three or four people hiding out in a rocky outcrop who appeared to be preparing a meal before settling down for the night.

The patrol emerged from cover and called for the group to surrender.

"While most of the group began to flee, it is reported that one member picked up a weapon and pointed it at the advancing patrol," Brigadier Hannan said.

"It's reported that the patrol members acted in self-defence and fired on the gunman and wounded him."

The rest of the group fled, leaving a large amount of personal equipment.

The wounded gangster was taken back to the Moleana army base for emergency life-saving surgery. He is due to undergo further surgery soon.

The body of another member of the group was found about 80m from their hide-out, still holding his gun and hand grenade.

Brigadier Hannan said it was believed both gangsters were shot by the Fijian soldiers.

Portuguese peacekeepers later captured another suspected member of the group trying to cross a river.

Brigadier Hannan said the detainee was being questioned by UN authorities, who had launched an investigation.

He said the gangsters were not believed to be part of a pro-Indonesian militia, and East Timorese authorities were likely to charge them with criminal offences.

Australian peacekeepers were last involved in live gunfire on June 14, 2001, near Balibo. They exchanged gunfire and grenades with a militia group who evaded capture.

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