Australian peacekeeping troops in East Timor are examining a newly discovered grave site in the Oe-Cussi enclave that may contain the remains of as many as 50 victims of a bloody rampage by Indonesian army troops and allied militias in September that followed the territory's overwhelming vote to secede from Indonesia.
At the same time, the head of the international intervention force predicted that the final death toll from the violence would likely be in "the lower hundreds," not the thousands as initially feared.
Peacekeepers said today that 14 bodies had been found at the Oe-Cussi site and that the painstaking search was continuing. Exhumations are difficult now because East Timor--Oe-Cussi is on the island's northern coast--is in the midst of the rainy season, and search teams fear that crucial evidence could be washed away if there is a rainstorm.
The exhumations are crucial to U.N. investigators and members of an Indonesian human rights team who are trying to build a case for possible criminal charges against top Indonesian army officials. The former armed forces commander, Gen. Wiranto, who is now a top minister in the cabinet of President Abdurrahman Wahid, has been named as a suspect.
U.N. and military officials said that nearly 200 bodies have been recovered, scattered over 100 locations. Another 200 sites have been identified as possibly containing victims' remains, but they have not yet been examined.
In addition, Australian navy divers were searching a small lake in the town of Maubara--about seven miles west of Liquica. It was in Liquica on April 6 that militiamen killed more than 60 people in an attack on a Roman Catholic church, then apparently dumped their bodies in the lake. Thus far, the remains of about a dozen people have been brought up.
The list of known and potential East Timor grave sites has already given Australian military officials and U.N. investigators a broad understanding of the scale of the violence that engulfed this territory in the week after nearly 80 percent of its people voted on Aug. 30 to become a new country. The violence continued until Sept. 20, when the Australian-led multinational force landed and began to restore order.
"Cobbling it all together, we're talking hundreds of cases," Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, commander of the intervention force, said in an interview. "But not thousands. And it's in the lower hundreds."
Wiranto, speaking to the Indonesian parliament in September, said the number killed in East Timor after the referendum results were announced was "roughly in the nineties," and he accused the foreign media of exaggerating the scale of the violence.
One unanswered question is whether some victims were dumped at sea, as has been repeatedly alleged by East Timorese villagers and refugees who reported seeing people loaded onto ships and the ships returning empty. Like all such accounts, these cannot be independently confirmed. "It's one of those tragic tales where who can say?" Cosgrove said.
Making a link between the growing number of bodies and the actual involvement, or complicity, of Indonesian army officials in the atrocities will not be easy, officials said. In some cases, people have reported witnessing killings, but no bodies resulting from such killings have been recovered. And in cases in which bodies have been exhumed, there often are no witnesses to link the slayings to individuals or specific army or militia units.
In two cases, Australian military officials and investigators believe they have sufficient evidence to bring charges--a church massacre in the town of Suai, from which 26 bodies were found and a number of witnesses have emerged, and the killing of two nuns and three men studying for the priesthood in Los Palos, where Cosgrove said those responsible have confessed and are in custody.
Cosgrove and Western diplomats also said there are specific suspects and a mountain of evidence in the slaying of Dutch journalist Sander Thoenes. Thoenes, who wrote for the Financial Times and the Christian Science Monitor, was killed by uniformed soldiers at a roadblock in the Becora section of Dili on the second day of the international intervention. A Dutch investigator has not yet been allowed to interview the suspects.
CAPTION: A journalist looks at human bones near the town of Maubara, East Timor, where Australians have found the remains of a dozen people killed in a massacre.
CAPTION: An Australian navy diver checks a bone found in a search of Maubara Lake, where the bodies of people slain in April at a Roman Catholic church in a nearby town may have been dumped.