Britain backs Jakarta denial of Timor terror claims

THE GOVERNMENTS of Britain and Indonesia have joined in an attempt to discredit a report in the Independent on Sunday of 12 November that British-built Hawk war planes were used on a mission to bolster Indonesia's savage occupation of East Timor.

The Government's action comes as protesters world-wide prepare to mark the 20th anniversary on Thursday of the Indonesian invasion of the former Portuguese colony.

The Indonesian government has issued to the Foreign and Commonwealth office a formal denial that two British aerospace Hawk war planes flew low over Dili, capital of East Timor, on the morning of 10 November.

I saw the Hawks make their pass as I stood near the Red Cross compound in a tense and frightened Dili at 8.50am on 10 November while armed troops and police were filling the streets. The military activity was aimed at preventing demonstrations on the anniversary of the killing of 271 armed Timorese protesters at the Santa Cruz cemetery on 12 November 1991. I was expelled from East Timor a few hours later.

Jeremy Hanley, Minister of State at the Foreign Office and former Conservative Party chairman, said: "We have no evidence to support [the] claim that Hawk aircraft flew over East Timor."

Mr Hanley was replying to a letter from Lord Avebury, chairman of the Parliamentary Human Rights Group, who had complained to him of the Indonesians' use of Hawks, quoting this newspaper's report. Lord Avebury accuses the Government of having breached the 1993 agreements of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which bans the export of arms to areas where they exacerbate existing tensions.

Lord Avebury has put down a question in the House of Lords asking Mr Hanley why he "prefers to believe the denial by the spokesman of the Indonesian occupation forces in East Timor ... rather than the word of a British journalist".

The Indonesian occupation of East Timor, estimated by Amnesty International to have claimed 200,000 lives, has been condemned by the UN Security Council. Our report also embarrassed Downing Street. Whitehall has maintained that General Suharto, the Indonesian dictator, has promised not to use the Hawks to bolster the occupation. When he was Foreign Secretary in 1989 John Major, against the protests of his Cabinet colleagues, stopped the sale of Hawks to Iraq because they could have been used by Saddam Hussein against the Kurds.

In 1991 after the first of my four visits to East Timor, the Foreign Office attempted to discredit my eye-witness report of Indonesian forces using British military vehicles in Dili. It claimed there was "no evidence". The Indonesian air force, with 44 Hawks on order or in service in two counter-insurgency squadrons, is the largest foreign customer for the aircraft, outstripping even the Saudi Arabians. A BAe spokesman said his company hoped Indonesia would buy more; the Indonesians hint they may buy 100. They bought the first eight Hawks in 1978 in a deal blessed by James Callaghan's Labour government. This order later rose to 20. In 1993 an additional 24 Hawks were purchased in a deal worth pounds 500 million.

The Indonesian embassy yesterday had nothing to add to its denial and would not comment on my expulsion. Meanwhile the UN, recognising the erosion of its prestige represented by Indonesian chronic defiance of the Security Council resolutions demanding the withdrawal of its troops, is increasing its activity on the Timor question. Jose Ayala Lasso, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, arrives in Dili this week and, if the Indonesian troops permit, will learn at first hand the views of the Timorese. Next month Portuguese, Timorese and Indonesians gather in London under the aegis of the UN Secretary- General for further talks about the territory's future. Lord Avebury and Ann Clwyd MP have invited me to give evidence to the parliamentary Human Rights Group in the House of Commons on 11 December.