Lindsay Murdoch, Dili
March 3, 2007
THE Federal Government has secretly sent a contingent of crack SAS soldiers to East Timor amid growing fears that violence will again erupt in the country, including the specific targeting of Australians.
Four Australian Defence Force planes have landed in Dili carrying up to 100 soldiers, who were sent after a meeting in Canberra this week of cabinet's national security committee.
The arrival of the extra troops, who will back up 800 Australian and 120 New Zealand troops already here, came as the Government raised its security warning for Australians in East Timor to level five — the highest.
Australian and United Nations security officials in Dili fear that widespread violence, even civil war, could break out if Australian soldiers kill or injure rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, who is trapped with up to 150 armed men in a town in the country's central mountains.
Reinado, who has become a cult-hero figure in East Timor, told The Age yesterday that if anything happened to him "people will violently rise up in their thousands".
He said he now commanded 700 mutineering soldiers, whose sacking last year sparked a violent upheaval that left dozens dead and forced 100,000 from their homes.
He said several hundred of his young supporters in East Timor were also waiting for orders.
"People will start killing each other if anything happens to me," Reinado said by telephone from the town of Same, which is blockaded by Australian soldiers. "There will be civil war."
The Australian-trained Reinado, a former head of East Timor's military police, said his supporters were ready to fight because "of what I am fighting for". Reinado, wanted for murder and rebellion, claims that the Government in Dili is corrupt and that the presence of Australian and New Zealand troops is an illegal invasion.
An attempt by East Timor's leaders to persuade Reinado to surrender initially failed yesterday when Australian soldiers refused to allow Prosecutor-General Longuinhos Monteiro to enter Same.
Mr Monteiro rang Reinado from a checkpoint on the town's outskirts and said he wanted to meet him to pass on a message for him to surrender, though he did not have the authority to negotiate a deal.
"I didn't want to speak with a postman, I wanted to speak with the Prosecutor-General," Reinado said. Mr Monteiro returned to Same last night and met Reinado. "He (Mr Monteiro) is now returning to Dili to speak with the leaders there about what we spoke about," Reinado said.
Brigadier Mal Rerden, the commander of Australian troops in East Timor, declined to comment late yesterday about the arrival in Dili of the SAS troops.
Brigadier Rerden repeated his demand for Reinado to hand over his weapons and present himself to East Timor's judicial system. He said his troops were "supporting the Government of Timor Leste (East Timor) in every possible way to find a peaceful resolution".
Brigadier Rerden described the lifting of Australia's security alert to its highest level as a "prudent measure".
"We would like to solve the situation peacefully," he said. "But these measures are there to advise Australian citizens on the situation so they can make their own judgement about what they should do."
Brigadier Rerden said the alert was justified by the actions of Reinado, who had broken off negotiations with the Government and led raids on border posts last weekend, seizing 25 high-powered weapons.
Many companies and non-government organisations in East Timor have a policy to evacuate staff upon notice of a level-five alert. The last time one was issued was during last year's upheaval.