As thousands of Indonesian troops continued their speedy withdrawal from East Timor, handing over control of the territory to an Australian-led multinational force, Indonesia's military commander today played down reports of executions and massacres in the territory, saying the foreign press had exaggerated the violence.
"The number of victims that we have recorded since the announcement of the result of the referendum is roughly in the nineties," Gen. Wiranto, commander of the armed forces, told parliament today.
Human rights groups and diplomats said thousands may have been killed during the two weeks since the results of a referendum were announced. In the referendum, East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for separation from Indonesia. Mary Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, has launched an inquiry into what she called a "well-planned and systematic policy of killings, displacement [and] destruction of property."
But Wiranto dismissed the reports of mass killings. "It is not the tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, as reported by the foreign media," he said. Another top commander, Lt. Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, rejected the allegation that war crimes had been committed in East Timor and said the violence there was nowhere near as bad as other recent tragedies in Africa and the Balkans.
"I am worried of opinion being formed in the international community that what happened in East Timor is a great human tragedy, ethnic cleansing or a large-scale crime, when in reality, it is not," said Yudhoyono, chief of territorial affairs for the military and a close confidant of Wiranto.
"I have been stationed in Bosnia," he told reporters after the parliamentary session. "Please do not picture that what happened in East Timor is as bad as the human tragedies in Rwanda, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo."
The extent of the killing is one of the largest unanswered questions about East Timor, and one that will immediately face the multinational intervention force as they begin fanning out beyond the capital of Dili and into other towns and villages--particularly in the west--that have been closed to most foreigners since the Aug. 30 referendum.
Besides securing the territory from marauding militiamen and opening supply routes for the delivery of badly needed relief aid to the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the violence, the troops also will search for evidence that could be used in any possible international criminal trials.
U.N. officials said they believe at least 25 people were killed on Sept. 6, when militiamen attacked the house of Dili's Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo, where thousands of displaced people had gathered. Local newspapers, quoting hospital sources, reported that 14 people were shot and stabbed to death on Sept. 5, in an attack on a building belonging to the Catholic diocese of Dili.
There were also accounts from people who had fled the violence, confirmed by the Vatican, that militiamen in the town of Suai entered a church where displaced people were being sheltered and killed scores with grenades and automatic weapons. Three priests were the first to be slain, witnesses recounted.
But there also have been stories of survival, some involving prominent pro-independence leaders and human rights activists. For example, Leandro Isaac, spokesman for the National Council for Timorese Resistance (CNRT), was first reported to have been killed, but he later called a contact on a cellular phone from a hiding place. The same seems to be true of David Ximenes, another prominent CNRT leader in Dili who apparently escaped the killings.
Since the outset of the violence, there has been a consistent effort by top Indonesian officials to play down the extent of the chaos in East Timor and blame outsiders, such as the press and foreign governments, for exaggerating it.
On Sept. 5, the day the worst violence erupted, Wiranto and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas briefly visited Dili and met with U.N. officials at the airport. During that session, U.N. officials outlined what they said were witness accounts that an American U.N. police officer was shot and wounded by a uniformed Indonesian policeman from the police mobile brigade, known as Brimob, who opened fire on a U.N. convoy. Illinois state trooper Earl Candler was shot by Indonesian troops in the town of Liquica.
Alatas's reaction, said a source, was to become angry, shouting: "Those are very serious allegations!"
During the first days of martial law, Alatas and military officials in Jakarta insisted that new emergency powers they had decreed to maintain order were working. But U.N. officials and journalists huddled in the besieged U.N. compound reported only a worsening of the situation.
There have been countless witness accounts of militiamen, soldiers and Indonesian Brimob officers working openly together--looting houses in Dili, helping herd displaced people from Belo's seaside compound onto waiting trucks, even joining to steal cars from an abandoned U.N. compound in full view of foreigners.
But today, Maj. Gen. Sudrajat, an army spokesman, said the military "has nothing to do with the pro-integration groups at all. . . . This point should be made clear." The militias are known as "pro-integration" because they favor East Timor's continued integration into Indonesia, rather than its independence.