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The criminal history of militia leader

The Age - April 17, 1999

Lindsay Murdoch, Jakarta – The Portuguese colonialists who ruled East Timor for more than 400 years are fondly remembered for introducing Timorese to the art of the siesta.

Between noon and 3pm most towns and villages close for business. But tomorrow few people in the capital, Dili, will be asleep. Mr Eurico Guterres has seen to that. A statement from the East Timor Pro-Integration Centre, based in Dili, declared this week that Mr Guterres will lead a so-called "invade Dili" rally of more than 10,000 people.

According to the statement, the rally and several others planned over the weekend are "just intended to prove who really is the majority" in East Timor: people who want East Timor to remain part of Indonesia or those who want independence.

If the rallies go ahead they will be a blatant act of provocation of a predominantly Catholic population still in shock over last week's massacre of up to 62 people who had sought refuge at the Liquica church and priest's house west of Dili.

Sporadic killings have continued every day throughout the territory since the massacre, with pro-independence guerrillas loyal to Jose "Xanana" Gusmao responding to his call to take up arms to stop Timorese being "slaughtered by animals".

Pro-independence activists and human rights investigators in Dili urge outsiders to take a look at the background of the leaders of the pro-integration push, like Mr Guterres, who seem determined to sabotage a scheduled vote in July on an Indonesian offer of wide-ranging autonomy for 800,000 Timorese and may even provoke a civil war.

According to the Foundation for Legal and Human Rights based in Dili, Mr Guterres formed a crime gang in 1988 and is known as the leader of gambling rackets in Dili. The gang has close links to Indonesian security forces in East Timor although that was not always the case. In the early 1990s Mr Guterres was detained by authorities on suspicion of involvement in a plot to kill former President Soeharto.

After his release he became a member of a group strongly opposed to independence which was set up by the Jakarta-appointed governor, Mr Abilio Soares, with the support of the Indonesian Army's Special Forces, Kopassus, then under the command of Mr Soeharto's son-in-law, Lieutenant-General Prabowo Subianto.

Mr Prabowo and his father in-law are now disgraced figures in Indonesia. Mr Prabowo is living in exile, apparently afraid to come home because of allegations he was responsible for human rights abuses when he was one of Indonesia's most powerful generals.

After Indonesia announced in January the possibility that East Timor could become independent if the people reject the autonomy package, Mr Guterres vowed to stop it happening. His gang was re-named Aitarak, meaning "Thorn".

Aitarak has some unsavory allies. Mr Guterres has announced his fighters will be joined in Dili this weekend by members of the Besi Merah Putih, which translates into Red and White Iron. Red and white are the colors of Indonesia's flag. It was this gang who attacked the Liquica church in the worst violence in East Timor since the 1991 Santa Cruz massacre in Dili.

The Besi Merah Putih are under the command of Manuel de Sousa, who also has strong links to the Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI). The Liquica massacre was the worst atrocity committed by Mr de Sousa's thugs but not the first. In February the gang, accompanied by Indonesian soldiers, attacked a village in the Liquica district called Guiso, arrested and then tortured women and children.

According to Indonesian and international human rights groups, the escalating violence since January is directly attributable to the actions of anti-independence civilian militias, many of which were given weapons by ABRI and acted with the open support of district and sub-district military commands.

Ms Sidney Jones, the executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said this week that before a ballot could be conducted in East Timor, "the militias have to be disarmed and some kind of security provided". But she adds: "The Indonesian army cannot provide that security; it is hardly perceived as impartial."

The big unanswered question is how far up the chain of command does support for the militias go? Most Western diplomats in Jakarta are giving the armed forces commander, General Wiranto, the benefit of the doubt. But an alternative possibility is also cause for alarm: he has lost control of his troops in a far-flung province.