Indonesians planned to kill newsmen, says ex-police chief

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BRITISH journalists allegedly murdered by Indonesian soldiers during the East Timor invasion of 1975 were on a secret assassination hit-list, according to a former senior police officer.

Manuel Dos Santos, former head of a police immigration unit in East Timor, said three days before the journalists were killed he learned their names were on a list drawn up by an Indonesian hit squad.

Brian Peters, from Bristol, and Malcolm Rennie, from Glasgow, were among five Australian-based journalists killed by Indonesian forces during the invasion of the former Portuguese colony. Their families say the full details of their deaths have never been told. The revelations add to pressure on the British government to hold its own inquiry.

Mr Dos Santos, now living in exile in Portugal, revealed his knowledge of an assassination list to the Indonesian human rights group, Tapol. He had previously told an official Australian inquiry in 1996, which chose not to publish it.

In his latest revelations, he said: "Two or three days before the attack on Balibo, the Indonesians had a list of eight people they wanted to kill in Balibo including the five newsmen. They (the Indonesians) used to listen to Fretelin radio. In one of the reports the Fretelin referred to the newsmen being in Balibo. This was before the attack."

Mr Dos Santos said he was aware of the Indonesians' plans because of his close links to police in West Timor, the neighbouring half of Timor, an island in the east of the Indonesian archipelago.

The five reporters, working for two Australian TV channels, were in Balibo, an East Timorese border town, trying to verify reports that the Indonesians were making armed forays into the former colony against Fretelin - the Timorese freedom fighters who had seized power following Portugal's withdrawal. Indonesia eventually invaded East Timor in a full-scale military operation. Independent observers suggest up to 200,000 of the population have since been killed by the regime.

Earlier this week, it was reported that a separate inquiry carried out by the Australian section of the International Commission of Jurists, found there was a "deliberate intention on the part of the Indonesian military forces' to kill the journalists". It named three senior Indonesian officials - one now a minister in the Habibie government - as being involved. The Sydney Morning Herald also claimed that it had evidence that the Australian embassy in Jakarta knew of the planned invasion three days before it was launched but failed to pass on the information to the journalists.

Last night Brian Peters' sister Maureen Tolfree, who has led a two-decade campaign for information about her brother, said: "The whole thing has made me feel sick for 23 years. It just goes on and on and on - it is so frustrating. Neither the British or the Australian governments will do anything about it." She said she believed that under information-sharing arrangements, if the Australian Embassy knew of the invasion, so would the British.

In his testimony to Australia's Sherman inquiry, Mr Dos Santos also said he spoke to someone who had seen one of the five journalists shot and the bodies of the other four dragged from a hut and dressed in military uniforms.

The British and Australian governments have previously accepted the men died when they were caught in crossfire. Australia is the only Western nation to recognise Indonesia's claim to East Timor.