Australia accused of East Timor cover-up

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THE AUSTRALIAN government faced renewed pressure yesterday to start an inquiry into the killing of five journalists during Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor after a newspaper reported that the Australian foreign ministry knew the attack was coming.

The Sydney Morning Herald claims it has evidence that the Australian embassy in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, knew Indonesia was about to invade East Timor and did nothing to warn the journalists.

The paper said the Department of Foreign Affairs was briefed in detail by Indonesian officials on the plans for their attack on the village of Balibo three days before it occurred.

The report says the attack was part of an invasion by about 3,200 troops intended to wrest control of all East Timor, and not a border skirmish as the Australian department portrays it. It claims key documents about the East Timor crisis of 1974-5 have gone missing from the department.

The allegations coincide with a call by the Australian section of the International Commission of Jurists for a federal judicial inquiry into the deaths.

The five, including Britons Malcolm Rennie and Brian Peters, were killed in Balibo in October 1975. Charred bone fragments, said to be the remains of the journalists, were removed and buried in Jakarta.

A 1996 government-commissioned report into the affair, chaired by Tom Sherman, former head of the National Crime Authority, concluded that the journalists were killed in fighting by an "attacking force" of Indonesian irregular troops and East Timorese under Indonesian officers.

The Indonesian government has said the Sherman report does not contradict its position that the five were killed in crossfire. But both The Sydney Morning Herald and the International Committee of Jurists say there is evidence the journalists were killed by Indonesian forces in Portuguese- style camouflage uniforms. Portugal ruled East Timor before the Indonesian invasion.

The Sydney Morning Herald says the foreign ministry knew the journalists were outside the port of Dili, but made no effort to check if Australians were in the attack zone. It did not inform the embassy in Jakarta in time for them to intervene with the Indonesian leadership.

Australia is the only Western country to recognise Indonesian sovereignty over East Timor.

The Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer, said yesterday he was satisfied there had been no restriction on access to foreign ministry files during the compilation of the Sherman report.

Rodney Lewis, of the Australian arm of the International Committee of Jurists, said the Sherman report was inadequate and did not take into account all the information available. "What we want is a full federal judicial inquiry with the power to require witnesses to give evidence and documents to be produced," he said.

Mr Lewis said the 20-year delay in compiling a report had been "unreasonable". He added: "There seemed to be clear available evidence that the Indonesians intended to kill the journalists, which Mr Sherman didn't deal with. One of the witnesses said he spoke to an Indonesian officer the night before the action and he told that they had malice against the journalists and they intended to deal with them."