Sunday, March 04, 2007

Timor's rebel outsmarts SAS

Photo Reuters

SECURITY forces in East Timor are braced for increasing violence after Australian soldiers killed four Timorese men in a botched attack to capture rebel leader Alfredo Reinado.

Reinado and some of his armed men escaped from a hilltop base in a 90-minute gun battle. Australian infantry were last night hunting Reinado in East Timor's rugged central mountains after hundreds of his supporters, who were enraged by the attack, rioted in the capital Dili and the towns of Gleno and Ermera.

The United Nations yesterday ordered police in East Timor's provincial cities and towns to Dili to reinforce its 1000 police, who repeatedly fired shots to disperse large groups of rioting Reinado supporters.

Reinado fled the base at Same as dozens of Australian soldiers, backed by two Black Hawk helicopters and three armoured personnel carriers, launched an attack in darkness early yesterday.

But the Australian-trained Reinado knew they were coming and before the attack had sent at least six telephone messages to journalists and diplomats telling them: "We are on alert to take any kind of attack."

Reinado and an unknown number of his armed men escaped despite the Australian soldiers being more heavily armed, had night-vision equipment and had been blockading the base for six days.

The commander of 700 mutinous soldiers sacked from East Timor's army last year, Gastao Salsinha, told The Age from a village in which he was hiding yesterday that he and his men had now dedicated their lives to fight for the rights of East Timor's 1 million people.

"How can the Australians come here and create instability?" he said. Salsinha said he escaped with two bodyguards and seven youths as the Australians stormed the base firing automatic weapons.

He said he did not know what happened to Reinado but would not be surprised if he had been wounded in the battle.

Reinado's escape has emboldened his supporters, who chanted "long live Reinado" as they fought running battles with UN police in Dili.

Rioters trashed cars and two government buildings in Dili and Gleno, a small town in East Timor's coffee-growing western mountains where Reinado grew up.

The Howard Government, fearing widespread violence, possibly even civil war, flew 100 crack SAS soldiers to East Timor less than 24 hours before the attack, which had the approval of the East Timor Government.

The commander of the International Security Force, Mal Rerden, said in Dili the soldiers killed the Timorese men because they were armed and posed an unpredictable threat.

The ISF comprises Australian and New Zealand soldiers.

"We don't have him," a grim-faced Brigadier Rerden said, referring to Reinado.

"We are continuing the operation to capture him," he said.

Brigadier Rerden denied that the operation had been botched but declined to give details.

"Any operation is a series of phases — this operation is ongoing and it will succeed," he said.

He said his troops had cleared Reinado's base and and captured some prisoners, but he declined to say how many.

Since Tuesday, Reinado had been mocking the Australian soldiers who were dug in at the edge of Same, saying he had a comfortable bed and could watch television while they were in the bush getting bitten by mosquitoes.

Wanted to answer charges of murder and rebellion, Reinado has been on the run since he led a mass escape from Dili's main jail last year.

Only hours after the attack, East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao appealed for calm in a televised address. "The interests of the state are bigger than any one person or group," he said.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Australian forces were determined to capture Reinado dead or alive.

Mr Downer urged Reinado to surrender, because he could not evade capture indefinitely.

He said Australia had demanded and received a letter from East Timor Prime Minister Jose Ramos Horta and Mr Gusmao, before authorising Australian troops to attack Reinado's base.

In Indonesia for top-level talks and a counter-terrorism summit, Mr Downer said: "Every effort will be made to capture him alive, but I think the best advice I can give Major Reinado is to surrender, he can hide in the jungle for only so long."

An ADF spokesman said the search would continue with helicopters and roadblocks.

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