Relatives of the dead Britons - both newsmen reporting on Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor in the East Indies - yesterday expressed shock and anger at the discovery that Mohammad Yunus Yosfiah, now a major-general in the Indonesian army, was allowed to spend a year at the prestigious Royal College of Defence Studies in 1989.
In 1975 he was a special-forces major in the Indonesian marines when his troops murdered the group of journalists, who were working for Australian television stations, in the tiny East Timor frontier village of Balib.
The five, including Britons Brian Peters, a 29-year-old cameraman, and Malcolm Rennie, a 28-year-old reporter, were killed in cold blood although they were unarmed and were wearing civilian clothes. They had taken no part in the desperate East Timorese defence of their territory against the invading Indonesians.
The house they were using as their temporary base was clearly identified with a drawing of an Australian flag and the word "Australia". Four died shouting: "Australians !"
After the murders, men from Yosfiah's unit photographed the bodies with automatic weapons in a bid to manufacture evidence suggesting they had been combatants. The invaders then doused them with petrol and burned them. The Indonesians gave some of their charred bones to the Australian government a few weeks later.
In 1989, it has now emerged, Yosfiah was invited to Britain to study at the Royal College of Defence Studies and spent a year in London as an honoured guest of the Government, working with senior officers, including British commanders from the Falklands War.
They can be seen in the photograph of Yosfiah's RCDS class year, among senior army, navy and airforce officers from all over the world. In the back row, fifth from the left, stands Brigadier David Chaundler, parachuted into the Falklands at the height of the 1982 conflict to take over command of the 2nd battalion the Parachute Regiment after its commander, Lt-Col 'H' Jones had been killed while winning the VC at Goose Green. Next to him, sixth from the left, is Captain Christopher Wreford-Brown, DSO, commander of the submarine HMS Conqueror, which sank the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano in the same conflict.
The picture was taken at Seaford House, one of London's more desirable properties on the corner of leafy Belgrave Square, its grand staircase, carved out of pure translucent onyx, famous to architectural historians. The Royal College of Defence Studies is to Britain's armed forces what All Souls College, Oxford is to Britain's academic community - a place of worldwide renown where the highest intellectual discussions take place in circumstances of quiet recollection and fierce debate.
British authorities should have known about Col Yosfiah's link with Balib, which was reported in the Australian press as long ago as 1979. Yet he could not have gained access to the RCDS, which was his home from January to December 1989, and where he was one of a number of high-flying British and foreign officers being mentally stretched on a demanding course designed to equip them for the highest leadership roles, without strong recommendation from the British embassy in Jakarta and the collaboration of the Ministry of Defence. Yesterday the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence were unable to comment.
The college's commandant at the time, however, was Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Armitage. "I remember him very clearly," says Sir Michael. "He spoke very reasonable English - a very pleasant fellow. He was quiet - he never thrust himself to the fore of a meeting. I have a clear mental picture of him. Like many special-forces people, he was surprisingly modest and retiring."
Sir Michael Armitage says he was quite unaware of any connection between Yosfiah and the actions at Balib. "I knew there were all sorts of allegations about that operation. His connection with these events was quite unknown to me. If the Foreign Office had known of any connection, no doubt they would have queried it."
Relatives of the two British journalists who were executed at Balib expressed anger that Yosfiah subsequently came to England to study.
Maureen Tolfree, the sister of Brian Peters, said she learnt of the officer's year in London on Friday in a letter from a friend. "I was absolutely stunned and I'm still stunned almost two days later," she said yesterday. "It doesn't matter if it's 20 years ago. I couldn't believe he had been here in England studying. Whether the government knew about him but knew they could sell arms to Indonesia, I don't know - I'm no politician. The whole thing stinks."
John Foster, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, said yesterday that he would write to the relevant government departments demanding more information on the affair. "If this proves to be true, we will make protests to Parliament and say that the guy should be extradited and the Government should take immediate action," he said.
Yosfiah was a 31-year-old major, and was the commander of a unit of Korps Marinier - the Indonesian equivalent of the Royal Marines' Special Boat Squadron - which in the early morning of Thursday, October 16 1975 had deliberately murdered the five journalists in the little East Timorese border village of Balib. Besides the two Britons, they killed two Australians, reporter Greg Shackleton, 29, and sound recordist Tony Stewart, 21, and a New Zealander, 27-year-old cameraman Gary Cunningham.
According to James Dunn, Australia's consul in East Timor at the time, the five were shot to prevent them getting their filmed story of the Indonesian invasion out to the world. The Australian government was implicated in the Indonesian cover-up.
An eye-witness who was 50 metres away has recounted the five men's last moments at the Chinese-owned shop which they had made their temporary base that day, when Yosfiah's men arrived.
"I saw one Australian come out of the door with his hands up saying something like "Australian! Journalist!" He was struck down instantly by a knife blow from an Indonesian soldier. I saw Indonesian soldiers fire through the window of the house on others inside, as well as the one who had fallen from the knife blow.
"I then saw a wounded man run out the back of the house trailing blood, up the hill to a house, formerly a Portuguese security post, behind the other. I saw him try to open the door but couldn't, turn, run a short distance, then drop dead."
Had the five been able to report on the invasion, undertaken by the regime of General Suharto despite successive denials that Indonesia had any designs on the tiny newly independent former Portuguese colony, history could have been changed. A bloodbath in which Amnesty International estimates that 200,000 people - a third of the population - has died could have been avoided and the 20-year-old occupation of East Timor by Indonesia might never have taken place.
Yosfiah's connection with the Balib attack has long been on public record. The National Times, a now defunct Australian weekly, named him in an investigation printed in July 1979. And anyway, the Australians had an account of the action as they listened to Indonesian military radio transmissions at the monitoring centre run by their Defence Signals Division at Shoal Bay, near Darwin in northern Australia.
The Indonesians had, according to Richard Woolcott, the Australian ambassador in Jakarta at the time, warned Australian officials of the attack on the village of Balib two or three days before it was mounted. Such Australian intelligence was and is available to Britain.
The diligence and application at college of Colonel Yusfiah were well rewarded. In 1990 he was madebrigadier-general and today, as a major- general, he sits in his HQ in Bandung, the intellectual capital of Indonesia, commanding the Army Infantry Arm (Weapons) Centre.Reuse content