One day after the United Nations agreed to launch a formal inquiry into human rights abuses committed by Indonesian troops and their militia proxies in East Timor, the first physical evidence of atrocities has been discovered--the charred remains of at least nine people in the back of a burned-out pickup truck.
Australian troops attached to the U.N. mission here visited the site today and photographed the remains for what they said could be evidence in the U.N. inquiry. The United Nations agreed on Tuesday to form a commission of inquiry over the objections of the Indonesian government, which insisted that it should investigate abuses committed by departing troops and militia members in reaction to East Timor's vote for independence from Indonesia last month.
Under the agreement, military officials here said, the inquiry commission--the first step toward establishment of a formal war crimes tribunal with the authority to issue indictments--will work in conjunction with the Indonesian National Human Rights Commission, a government body that has demonstrated some independence.
With the commission in place, the U.N.-backed peacekeeping force fanning out across East Timor will add the collection of war crimes evidence to its growing list of tasks, said Lt. Col. Drew Braban, chief legal officer for the international operation.
There have been other accounts of mass executions here, but until today large numbers of bodies had not been discovered--raising questions about the actual number of people killed during a two-week rampage by Indonesian troops and militiamen following the independence referendum. Residents who survived the attacks in Dili, the East Timor capital, have described how bodies were burned in an attempt to dispose of them quickly and how others were dumped at sea, but none of those accounts has been independently confirmed.
Local residents led reporters to the remains of the bodies found today--in a vehicle junkyard at the edge of a main highway about two miles west of Dili. The first sign was an overpowering stench coming from a white pickup truck. In the cargo bed of the truck, at least nine skulls were visible, along with a few scorched limbs, a torso and some charred bones. One small skull appeared to be that of a child.
There was no clear evidence of how the victims died. One area resident said they had been hacked to death with machetes and their corpses brought to the junkyard and set on fire.
Earlier this week, one decomposing body was discovered in a well behind the home of Manuel Carrascalao, an independence leader. Local people had said the well contained other bodies, but none have been recovered.
Some military officials said today that the peacekeepers are still spread thin 10 days after their arrival and have been unable to follow up on reports of suspected massacre sites. Just over half of the 8,000 troops earmarked for the mission are in place, and they still have not ventured farther west than the town of Liquica, outside Dili, to the western districts of East Timor, where the militia groups were strongest and where some of the bloodiest violence occurred around the time of the Aug. 30 referendum.
The area between Dili and Atambua--in neighboring western Timor, part of a separate Indonesian province--is "a black hole," said Lynn Arnold, chief executive officer of World Vision Australia, a relief organization. "Nobody knows what it's like."
Sanjay Sojwal of World Vision International accompanied U.N. officials on an aerial tour of the western district and said he found the destruction to be greater than in Dili. "Nothing prepared me for the extent of the damage," he said. "City after city, town after town."
Defense Secretary William S. Cohen announced today that the United States will dispatch the helicopter carrier USS Belleau Wood to provide additional logistical assistance to the peacekeeping force, news services reported. Speaking in Darwin, Australia, before flying to Jakarta for talks with Indonesian leaders on Thursday, Cohen warned the Indonesian government that it will face political and economic isolation if it fails to rein in its military in East Timor.
Cohen said about 130 Army communications specialists from the 11th Signal Group at Fort Huachucha, Ariz., also will arrive soon in Darwin and Dili. The additional personnel will bring the total number of U.S. troops taking part in the peacekeeping operation to about 450, none of them combat soldiers.
The western portion of East Timor is said to have been largely depopulated as militia groups and government troops swept through, herding tens of thousands of people across the border into western Timor, where aid agencies and human rights groups say they are being held as virtual hostages.
Today, Bishop Basilio Nascimento, Roman Catholic prelate of Baukau in central East Timor, told reporters there that 150,000 refugees in western Timor "want to come back. I know they want to come back."
Nascimento said the soldiers and militiamen detaining refugees in western Timor may be trying "to convince international opinion that the people didn't want independence after all." For the Indonesian military, he said, the loss of East Timor marks a "humiliating situation," adding that there is still the possibility "they are planning something."
For the moment, however, the peacekeepers have met no resistance and have not fired a shot as they spread out from Dili, first to Liquica and then east to the town of Com. At Com, military officials said today, they detained 15 members of the Team Alpha militia group and confiscated several semi-automatic assault rifles. A military spokesman called it "the first big haul of modern assault weapons."
CAPTION: With his nose covered to filter the stench, an East Timorese man views the charred remnants of at least nine bodies in the cargo bed of a pickup truck.