Witness speaks on deaths of British

East Timor legacy: Attacks on resistance launched as pressure grows for inquiry over journalists killed during invasion
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE OF the few surviving witnesses to the 1975 murder of two British journalists by Indonesian troops in East Timor is willing to testify about their deaths, a development that will add to pressure on the British government to conduct its own inquiry into the circumstances of the so-called Balibo massacre.

The man, a former guerrilla fighter still active in the underground resistance movement against Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, is the first witness to the killings to offer his testimony, at a time when concern over the case is growing in Britain and Australia. This week the Australian government announced that it was re-opening its investigation into the Balibo incident in which two British, two Australian and a New Zealand journalist died while filming Indonesia's covert invasion of East Timor for Australian television.

This month, the Indonesian president, B J Habibie, promised that he would look into the case after a request by the British foreign office minister, Derek Fatchett.

This week, during an interview with The Independent, in an isolated village in East Timor, the witness said that he welcomed the British initiative and would give whatever help he could to an inquiry.

"I am willing to give testimony on these matters and ready to speak to them if they give me a guarantee for my security," said the 40-year-old man, who has been arrested several times in the past and can only be identified by his guerrilla code name, Torrado.

"I am very glad [that the matter has been raised] because if you want to solve the East Timor problem, you have to start in 1975 when they started killing journalists, it was the first sign that they had no respect for civilians."

Malcolm Rennie of Glasgow, and his cameraman Brian Peters from Bristol, who worked for Australia's Channel 9 television, were with three colleagues from another station, in the small East Timorese village of Balibo when the Indonesian attack began in the early hours of 16 October 1975.

The village is close to the border with Indonesian West Timor and its only other occupants were some 100 militia men of Fretilin, the political party which is still fighting for an independent East Timor. Among them was Torrado, then 17-years-old.

"When the journalists came to us in Balibo we were very happy because they would publicise our fight all over the world," he said.

When Indonesian ships off the coast began bombarding the town at 4am, Torrado was with four of his comrades in an old Portuguese fort looking down.

The journalists were occupying a deserted restaurant clearly visible from the walls of the fort, about 200-metres away.

"The troops entered at 6 o'clock and there was fighting until about 9 o'clock," said Torrado. "At 7, two of them appeared at the castle and took our picture. They also filmed the incoming Indonesian soldiers in three directions. By 9, all our friends had fled away and the five us stayed in the fort.

"The soldiers who came from the direction of Maliana [a town inland of Balibo] saw the journalists and dragged them out and we could see from the castle, three of them ... They were shouting, `Australian! Australian! No Fretilin! No Fretilin!' They didn't have weapons because they were independent [of either side]. They were taken out and they didn't resist, and then on the street, maybe they were stabbed. I couldn't tell on what part of the body, but they fell ... We were afraid, we said, `Our independent journalists have been killed,' and it couldn't be worse for us. Then we fled away."

Torrado's four other companions, the last Fretilin militia men to leave Balibo, have all since died or been killed in fighting. But two other eye-witnesses have recently come forward with accounts which corroborate Torrado's claim that the five journalists were murdered in cold blood.

One of them, an East Timorese man named Orlando Guterres, told Australian television last week that the murder of the men was directly ordered by a young Indonesian commando officer who is now a minister. The Indonesian government has always insisted that the five men died accidentally during cross-fire between rival East Timorese groups, and a report commissioned by the Australian government concluded in 1996 that they were killed "in the heat of battle".

Comments