Subject: Report from Maliana: Digging in for the return of the militia

The Age [Melbourne] Sunday 17 October 1999

Digging in for the return of the militia


The executioners dined heartily after disposing of the 14 pro-independence supporters. Along the banks of the pandanus-lined billabong eight kilometres outside Western Maliana, lay a discarded packet of Indonesian brand Senior cigarettes and six instant noodle wrappers.

Two piles of clothes lay at the edge of the billabong. Partially charred from a clumsy attempt to dispose of the evidence, they consist of jeans, shirts and underwear, including one set belonging to a woman. Not far away lay a collection of scorched wallets and personal effects. Australian paratroopers overseeing the area say they also found discarded 7.62 mm shell casings nearby.

Nobody has dragged the lagoon for bodies, but residents are adamant that the waterhole holds evidence pointing to one of the most brutal post-ballot massacres committed by personnel of the Indonesian army, police and their militia allies.

The Australian commander in Maliana, Major Dave Rose, of Three Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, says he has been given a list of 12 names out of the 14 victims. They include Manuel De Oliveira, the head of Maliana's pro-independence CNRT Party.

For human rights abuses, militia terror, murder and intimidation, Maliana, a key western border district, rang constant alarm bells at the UN headquarters in Dili.

Now, after fleeing across the border following the territory-wide firestorm of destruction, the militia are starting to return. The new power in town, the International Force in East Timor led by Australia's Major General Peter Cosgrove, is getting disturbing reports of infiltration by the very same people who committed atrocities like the one at Maliana.

Only five days ago, suspected militia attacked villagers near Cailaco within the operational area of Australian peacekeepers and one hour's drive from Maliana. Four people were reported killed in that incident.

Anxious to seal the volatile frontier from behind which militia leaders like Eurico Guterres and Joao Tavarres continue to taunt the peacekeepers with invasion threats, General Cosgrove has committed the cream of his military units.

A 3000-strong taskforce of Australian paratroops and infantry, New Zealand infantry and British Gurkhas have been deployed to East Timor's west. Lieutenant-Colonel Nick Welch, commander of Three Battalion Royal Australian Regiment, Australia's only airborne force, says he and his men do not underestimate the militia threat along the western frontier.

"There are elements based along the border that are attempting to determine exactly what our dispositions are and what we are likely to do. And clearly that is what my focus is in terms of setting the battalion up to monitor both the border and getting people back into their villages and towns like Maliana," he said yesterday.

The Australian paratroopers will soon be doing border patrol work up to a one kilometre exclusion zone announced this week by General Cosgrove.

General Cosgrove estimates total militia strength in East Timor as being in the hundreds and not thousands, but he concedes some militia might have infiltrated since the arrival of Interfet Forces in East Timor on 20 September. The exclusion zone applicable only to Interfet troops is designed to avoid a repetition of violent clashes between Australian peacekeepers, the militia and their Indonesian military allies.

General Cosgrove is acutely conscious of the political impact of body bags returning to Australia.

That reality came close last Sunday when troops approaching the outskirts of Motaain hamlet came under fire from Indonesian police and militia.

General Cosgrove claims the Australian patrol was fired on 800 metres inside East Timor and he is waiting for an explanation from the Indonesian military who tend to be reluctant to reply to such demands.

Meanwhile, Maliana, a fire-blackened ruin of a town, continues to be the centre of a huge military buildup. Light armored vehicles (LAVs) equipped with 25mm rapid firing cannon, rumble up the dusty debris-strewn streets. The town's sports stadium, where thousands of East Timorese residents opted for independence in the 30 August ballot, has now become a huge military warehouse holding ammunition, food and medical equipment.

Yesterday, advance elements of the Second Battalion Royal Gurkha Rifles arrived in a dawn air mobile operation in Maliana to strengthen Interfet's presence along the border.

The presence of the peacekeepers has triggered a steady trickle of refugees down from their mountain refuges and into town. Soldiers say there are thousands more displaced people sheltering among the towering limestone peaks that surround Maliana and that scores of campfires can be seen at night through their special night viewing devices.

Away from the oppressive heat of the river flats of Maliana, 30kilometres south east, in Bobonaro, Major Nick Hermann, Commanding Officer of Alpha Company Three ARR, is sending patrols out to meet the locals and familiarise his men with their new operational area.

On Thursday The Sunday Age accompanied Two Section One Platoon Alpha Company on a foot patrol into the rugged hinterland of Bobonaro.

Small groups of villagers are now returning to their fire-blackened ruins where they once lived, others are planting seeds before the onset of the wet season.

Among the men of Two Section there is a strong feeling of contempt for the Indonesian soldiers who allowed the destruction in East Timor to happen. They believe the pro-Jakarta militia do not even rate as a worthy foe. Many of the men were wary of the media presence, but said they were spoiling for a "contact" with the militia. In terms of firepower it will be a very one-sided event.

Nine paratroopers who make up a section carry Steyr automatic rifles, Vietnam-era M79 40mm grenade launchers, the latest sniper rifles, 66mm disposable rockets and deadly Minimi light machine guns.

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