Subject: Age: Hunt for East Timor's rebel leader becomes an embarrassment

The Age (Melbourne)

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Hunt for East Timor's rebel leader becomes an embarrassment

Lindsay Murdoch, Same

Australian troops in a political bind

EAST Timorese MP Leandro Isaac has a blunt message for Australian troops who hunted him in East Timor's rugged mountains for two months. "You are stupid," he said yesterday.

"You never bothered to find out about us . . . you don't know who we are or what we believe in."

His friend, rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, has been pursued since March 4 when Special Air Service commandos botched a pre-dawn bid to capture him.

Mr Isaac said the Australians have themselves to blame for becoming embroiled in the controversial hunt for Major Reinado. "Every day that passes with Alfredo still at large makes him more and more popular," Mr Isaac said.

The controversy has taken a new turn ahead of Wednesday's second round of presidential elections after Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta ordered a halt to the hunt for Major Reinado. The major is the renegade former head of the country's military police who is wanted for murder and rebellion.

Mr Ramos Horta, who is contesting the election against ruling Fretilin candidate Francisco "Lu-Olo" Guterres, saw votes in helping Major Reinado even though only weeks earlier he co-signed a letter asking Prime Minister John Howard to authorise Australian troops to mount an operation to capture the renegade.

The order puts Brigadier Mal Rerden, commander of the 800-strong Australian force in East Timor, in a difficult position. Without a letter from the Timorese leadership, including Fretilin, he cannot officially call off the hunt. Fretilin said it would refuse to sign such a letter, accusing Mr Ramos Horta of using his position to manipulate the Australian troops in a blatant attempt to win votes.

But if the Australian troops now arrest or kill Major Reinado they would be seen to have failed to carry out an order from Mr Ramos Horta whose credibility would be damaged as he attempts to become East Timor's second president.

Major Reinado, who received military training in Australia is a cult hero among many Timorese. He has said he is prepared to die rather than be captured.

His supporters could react violently, perhaps threatening the presidential vote and parliamentary elections on June 30 if he were injured or killed.

Some analysts in Dili speculate that the Australian troops may not be trying too hard to capture him even though they were continuing this week to kick in doors of homes where they thought he might be hiding.

Brigadier Rerden's spokesman insisted that as the International Security Force has not received a formal request from Dili, the Reinado operation is still under way.

Mr Isaac, an independent MP, said the SAS attack on Major Reinado at an old fort in the central mountain town of Same on March 4 was doomed from the start because the Australians had alienated the local people.

In an interview this week, Mr Isaac revealed that villagers laid down in front of two Australian armoured vehicles and clambered on them as they moved towards Major Reinado's base, forcing them to retreat. "It was like Delta Force, the movie, except it was the real thing," he said. "The commandos came down ropes from four helicopters, guns blazing," he said.

Mr Isaac said that a gun battle continued for almost two hours.

"Major Alfredo managed to climb out of the back window of a building as his men fought the Australians at the front," he said.

Brigadier Rerden has declined to reveal details about the attack in which five rebels were killed.

Mr Isaac said he and dozens of other supporters of Major Reinado ran to hide in the hills because they feared the Australians, who, he claimed, harassed locals for weeks afterwards.

"The Australians failed because they did not bother with a hearts-and-minds strategy," Mr Isaac said. "Instead they relied on brutal tactics which backfired on them."

He said soldiers offered one of his relatives $US200 for information. "How stupid is that?" he said. He said the Australians also offered up to $US1000 for information, but "nobody told them anything".

Mr Ramos Horta has emerged as the strong favourite to win Wednesday's election. Some analysts say he didn't need to play the Reinado card, which has prompted criticism that he had failed to keep politics separate from the country's fledgling justice system.

The election has degenerated into bitter mud-slinging but there have been few violent clashes. Fretilin militants have been accused of intimidating voters in house calls. Fretilin, meanwhile, has accused Mr Ramos Horta's campaign of using a disgraced former army sergeant, Vicente da Conceicao, to help mobilise voters in the western district of Liquica. Mr da Conceicao's allegations that he set up a hit-squad to eliminate political rivals forced former prime minister Mari Alkatiri from office amid violent upheaval last year.

Mr Alkatiri has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

Mr Ramos Horta is favoured to win the run-off because five of six non-Fretilin candidates in the first round have told their supporters to vote for him. He won 21.81 per cent of the vote in the first round, while Mr Guterres got 29 per cent.

Analysts say it will be difficult for Fretilin to lift its vote to more than 50 per cent needed for Mr Guterres to win. Mr Ramos Horta secured the support of reformist Democratic Party leader Fernando Lasama when he ordered a halt to the manhunt. Mr Lasama won 19 per cent of the first-round vote.

Analysts say it cannot be assumed that people who voted for the five non-Fretilin candidates in the first round will automatically vote for Mr Ramos Horta, who polled poorly in some western and central districts while sweeping Dili.

United Nations officials helping organise the vote expect a lower voter turn-out this time, reflecting some dissatisfaction with both candidates.

------------------------------------------ Joyo Indonesia News Service

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