Habibie calls journalists' death inquiry

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THE PRESIDENT of Indonesia has promised to investigate the deaths of two British journalists who were allegedly assassinated in East Timor.

Twenty-three years after his country's brutal invasion of the former Portuguese colony, President B J Habibie said he would look into the circumstances of the so-called Balibo massacre. It is the first time Indonesia has offered to examine the deaths of Britons Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie who, with three colleagues, were covering the invasion for Australian television stations.

Indonesia has always insisted the men died accidentally in cross-fire between rival Timorese factions. But after pressure from bereaved relatives and human rights campaigners, Mr Habibie gave an undertaking to the Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett at a meeting in Jakarta earlier this month. "President Habibie promised me he would go away and look at this and come back with any information about what happened in 1975," Mr Fatchett told The Independent. "This may be a long shot, but we hope to see if we can do anything for the families after all these years, and to get ourselves off the back foot by trying to help them instead of being so defensive. People want to bring a chapter to an end."

Last night the families of the two men gave a mixed reaction. Maureen Tolfree, a sister of Brian Peters, said: "I have heard this before. If the Government really wanted to know what had happened they would already have found out."

Minna Rennie, the mother of Malcolm Rennie, said: "I hope that I find out something. This is not just about two lives - their deaths destroyed the lives of other people."

Jose Ramos Horta, Nobel laureate and foreign ambassador for the East Timorese resistance movement, said: "There is absolutely no reason for anyone to trust the words of President Habibie. The only way to have an investigation is to have it carried out by an international team, with input from the families and the media in both Britain and Australia."

The deaths of the five journalists came at the beginning of Indonesia's invasion and continuing occupation of East Timor, estimated to have cost the lives of as many as 200,000 people through war, disease and famine.

The Indonesian action has been condemned by the United Nations and only Australia recognises the act of annexation announced by Jakarta in 1976. At the time, other governments, including those of Britain and the United States, gave their passive consent to the invasion, fearful East Timor might otherwise come under communist influence.

Earlier this year it was revealed that the names of the five journalists, with another reporter, Roger East, who was subsequently executed, were contained in an assassination hit-list drawn up by Indonesian special forces. It was also revealed Australia failed to warn the journalists despite being informed in advance about the plan to attack Balibo.

By a bitter irony, Yunus Yosfiah, the young officer who led the attack on Balibo, is now the Minister of Information, responsible for the activities of foreign journalists in Indonesia.