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Early in 2006, Timor-Leste took a step backward. Lauded by then-Secretary General Kofi Annan as a successful nation building exercise, Timor was supposed to be on track for success. Instead, by the end of June 2006, upwards of 150,000 Timorese were displaced from their homes, with 70,000 registered for aid in camps around Dili and another 80,000 fled back to their Districts in the countryside. Instability continues despite the presence of over 3000 international troops between June and September 2006, now drawn down to 1000 troops and 1000 UNPol officers. Initially, the incident began within the F-FDTL (FALINTIL- Forças de Defesa de Timor Leste, or the Timorese Defence Forces) but spread quickly. One incident in particular which occurred during the recent unrest stands out above others for its brutality.
On May 25th, the massacre of eight unarmed Timorese police officers (PNTL- Policia Nacional de Timor-Leste), with another 27 – including 2 United Nations (UN) staff members shocked observers. The killing is thought to have been committed by members of the F-FDTL.
On January 11th 2006, a group of soldiers within the F-FDTL (now called “the Petitioners”) lodged a series of formal complaints with F-FDTL chief, Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak. The majority of the Petitioners were from the western Districts of Timor – westerners being one of two internally recognized ethnic groups, in Timor-Leste, easterners the other. The grievances cited poor service conditions, lack of opportunity for promotion, and abusive discrimination by eastern officers against westerners (e.g. calling the westerners “sons of Indonesian militia whores”, relating to claims Timorese from the eastern portion of the country did more to resist the Indonesian occupation than those in the west).
Instead of taking these complaints seriously (which had been building over the previous few years according to some analysts) they were largely ignored (F-FDTL leadership is dominated by easterners). By early February, talks to resolve the issues broke down and nearly 400 Petitioners deserted their posts from various F-FDTL bases. By mid-February, the number grew to 591 – 40% of the total force of 1500. February 23rd, Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak unceremoniously dismissed all 591 of the Petitioners after they failed to return to their barracks. The Brigadier General simply stated, “Thank you”, and fired them. While questions remain over his legal ability to have done so, the decision was endorsed by then Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri.
On 23 March, President Xanana Gusmão addressed the nation stating that the dismissal was within the competency of the Matan Ruak’s domain, but also that the decision was unjust. The President, using the Petitioner’s language, gave credence to their claims that problems within F-FDTL were due primarily to discrimination by easterners against westerners. This speech was perceived as divisive and helped to further foster building inter-ethnic group conflict. Between 25 and 31 March multiple minor disturbances in Dili assumed an east versus west dynamic as youths from both regions became embroiled in the petitioner issue, though there is evidence these disturbances were merely the latest manifestations of an east-west divide.
After a tense period of discussions and moves by the government, talks failed and the Petitioners requested and received permission to hold a series of demonstrations. April 24th marked the beginning of 4 days of protests by Petitioners and thousands of civilians who joined their cause. On April 26th market stalls and properties belonging to easterners were attacked. The final demonstration on the 28th of April turned violent. In the context of virulent anti-easterner and anti-government speeches made by pro-western militant groups, mixed bands of civilians and petitioners broke off from the main demonstration and attacked the Government Palace, burning a government vehicle and smashing windows. The Timorese Police forces (Policia National de Timor-Leste – PNTL) were unable (or unwilling) to control the situation and withdrew. Public order and security deteriorated rapidly. This violence spread to the Dili’s western Sucos, Comoro and Taci Tolu. In light of the inability (or unwillingness) of the police to re-establish order, now deposed Prime Minister Alkatiri deployed remaining F-FDTL forces onto city streets to quash the violence. Armed civilians were seen in the F-FDTL ranks deployed in Taci Tolu. Official reports cite 5 dead, 47 wounded, with around 100 homes burned –mainly belonging to easterners. 10,000 people were initially displaced.
The now famous Major Alfredo Reinado deserted his post afterward with his Military Police platoon, taking significant amounts of military hardware with them, citing the unconstitutionality of the Prime Minister’s order – notably, he flees to the west indicating support for that ethnic group.
The events between the 23rd and 25th of May perhaps proved the final tipping point and marked the outbreak of hostilities. On the 23rd of May, during a filmed interview between Major Reinado and SBS reporter David O’Shea in Fatu Ahi, a group of F-FDTL soldiers approached the area with some PNTL officers to establish a joint base of operations. Reinado was filmed warning them off and counting to “10”, raising his scoped M-16 rifle, and firing. When prompted by O’Shea, Reinado replied “got one”, apparently having shot an F-FDTL soldier while being filmed. The resulting battle in which numerous F-FDTL officers were killed appears to have been a set-up, with Reinado’s men strategically placed in ambush formation in a locale they knew the F-FDTL – largely easterners – would pass.
On May 24th, PNTL and civilian militia (westerners) launched a sustained attack on military personnel in Taci Tolu. The now famous “Railos” militia was apparently involved in the attack, contradicting claims of having been armed and ordered to provide security to FRETILIN members and/or liquidate Petitioners (e.g. westerners). The fighting was intense; an F-FDTL maritime gunboat was called to provide heavy fire support for the F-FDTL, strafing the surrounding hills. A number of the attackers were killed and found in possession of weaponry issued exclusively to PNTL forces.
Later that day, another concerted attack was launched against the personal residence of Brigadier General Taur Matan Ruak (an easterner), again by a mixed group of PNTL and armed civilians, apparently led by Deputy PNTL Commander for Liquiça, Abilio Mesquita (all westerners). The attack was subsequently repelled. On this day, the Timorese government requested international assistance to calm the situation.
The Event in Question
At this point, direct citation from the Special Commission of Inquiry (COI) established to investigate the events leading up to the violence in Timor-Leste is used. The account is far more detailed than any which might be put together independently without being in the country.
As a result of PNTL attacks on the Taci Tolu military base and the Brigadier General’s house, the relationship between the F-FDTL and the PNTL failed. It is important to note throughout, that each force was composed primarily of one ethnic group – PNTL of westerners, F-FDTL easterners.
Following section excerpted from: Report of the United Nations Independent Special Commission of Inquiry for Timor-Leste Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (Geneva, 2 October 2006), paras 71-85. (COI Report).
(Accessed January 18, 2007)
73. Rumours of a planned attack by F-FDTL upon the PNTL headquarters began to circulate. Tip-offs about the impending attack were made by three different people within F-FDTL to three different people within PNTL, apparently as a result of friendships that were stronger than allegiances to F-FDTL. The tip-offs were reported to the PNTL Chief of Operations, the PNTL Dili District Commander, the Minister of the Interior, the Prime Minister and UNPOL. Indeed, one UNPOL officer reported the presence of machine guns on the roof of the former United Nations Peacekeeping Force (PKF) building during the afternoon of 24 May.
72. The PNTL Deputy General Commander (Administration), Lino Saldanha, who had been armed by and was by then operating under F-FDTL command, gave the last tip-off at about 2 a.m. on 25 May. In a telephone call to his administrative assistant, Commander Saldanha warned that FFDTL would be coming to the PNTL headquarters to kill people. He asked specifically whether Chief of Operations de Jesus was present. Commander Saldanha made further telephone calls at about 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., the latter to Chief of Operations de Jesus, instructing all PNTL members to return to the PNTL headquarters.
73. Throughout the night of 24 to 25 May the F-FDTL hierarchy armed in excess of 200 civilians and PNTL officers and moved these civilians and officers to various locations in Dili. This process was organized as a response to the perceived threat posed to F-FDTL by PNTL. At about 1 a.m. 64 PNTL officers who had been armed by F-FDTL in Baucau left to go to Fatu Ahi. They were then sent to Military Police headquarters and from there to guard the water reservoir at Bairro Pite. At about 4 a.m. F-FDTL soldiers were also sent to Bairro Pite with orders to prevent petitioners from entering the city. Other F-FDTL soldiers were sent to the ex-PKF building and told to be ready. By daylight, 84 soldiers were present at this location. This included some troops who had been stationed in Dili well before 25 May.
74. Some time during 25 May the Prime Minister contacted both Brigadier General Ruak and PNTL Chief of Operations de Jesus, then the most senior PNTL officer in Dili, encouraging them to work together. Prime Minister Alkatiri provided the Brigadier General with the telephone number of the Chief of Operations.
75. During the morning of 25 May a convoy of PNTL vehicles passed in front of the Leader store in Comoro. Armed soldiers were present on the street. Two vehicles passed the police cars. The first was a white pick-up truck carrying three men in uniform armed with M16 weapons. The second was a red truck carrying between 15 and 20 armed men, some wearing uniforms and others in civilian clothes. The men from these vehicles and the soldiers on the street fired upon the police vehicles, wounding one PNTL officer in the legs. The police returned fire before returning, at speed, to the PNTL headquarters. The report of the shooting caused panic among the PNTL officers. Some armed themselves and assumed positions around the PNTL compound. Simultaneously, F-FDTL soldiers within the ex-PKF building heard a report that PNTL officers had opened fire upon F-FDTL soldiers in Comoro before decamping, at speed, to their headquarters. While the Commission is satisfied, on the basis of evidence of independent witnesses, that F-FDTL initiated the exchange of fire, at the time each side believed that they had been attacked by the other.
76. A tense hour passed. Then, at about 11 a.m., a red pick-up truck drove towards the PNTL headquarters. PNTL officers who witnessed this suspected that the expected attack would be launched from that truck. One fired a single warning shot. Almost immediately two grenades were fired by F-FDTL from the ex-PKF building. One landed near the university gym and the second exploded on the PNTL building, injuring three officers. PNTL then returned fire and an intense exchange of fire followed.
77. The F-FDTL position articulated to the Commission is that F-FDTL had earlier come under fire from PNTL stationed both at the PNTL headquarters and the Ministry of Justice and, further, that this fire was aimed specifically at the second floor meeting room of the ex-PKF building where Brigadier General Ruak and Colonel Lere had been present since about 8 a.m. The Commission has received no evidence to support this position. To the contrary, on the basis of independent evidence the Commission is satisfied that the exchange of fire was triggered unintentionally by the single warning shot fired by a PNTL officer. The Commission is satisfied further that although there is information which suggests the possibility that F-FDTL were preparing to launch an attack against the PNTL headquarters, the exchange of fire that commenced at 11 a.m. on 25 May was not the execution of that attack.
78. Upon hearing the shot the initial response of the F-FDTL soldiers was confused and the evidence remains unclear whether that response was spontaneous or carried out under order. Initially all of the F-FDTL fire came from within the ex-PKF building. Later, under order, the FFDTL soldiers also took up positions to the west, south and east of the PNTL building, with a few F-FDTL soldiers also to the north. A group of about six soldiers took up positions at the Ministry of Justice intersection.
79. Five UNPOL officers within the PNTL building had established radio contact with UNPOL officers at Obrigado Barracks at about 11.30 a.m. As a result UNPOL Senior Adviser Saif Malik became aware that the UNPOL officers were trapped, that PNTL officers had been injured and that PNTL wanted to organize a ceasefire, but were unable to contact the F-FDTL commanders. At around 12.30 p.m. Mr. Malik and Colonel Reis, the Chief Military Training Adviser, who had also heard the radio communications, each spoke separately with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General. Both men sought and were granted permission to intervene. While the Special Representative of the Secretary-General did not inform Colonel Reis, who was the second in time to speak to him, that permission had already been granted to Mr. Malik, the two men spoke shortly thereafter. Mr. Malik wanted to send UNPOL officers with Colonel Reis to meet with Brigadier General Ruak. Colonel Reis refused, believing that the presence of more police officers wearing blue shirts would aggravate the situation.
80. Colonel Reis, his deputy and another officer departed Obrigado Barracks in a United
Nations vehicle with the United Nations flag held from the rear passenger window. Colonel Reis spoke with Brigadier General Ruak in the entrance to the ex-PKF building. The conversation lasted from 5 to 10 minutes, during which the shooting continued. A ceasefire was established. Although Brigadier General Ruak denies that the ceasefire was conditional upon the disarming of PNTL, the Commission is satisfied that the conditions of the ceasefire were that PNTL would be disarmed, the weapons would be taken by the United Nations officers and any PNTL officer who remained behind would be subject to a new attack. The Brigadier General gave his officers the order to cease fire. Colonel Lere sent runners to communicate the order to the soldiers not within earshot.
81. As Colonel Reis was leaving the ex-PKF building, two UNPOL officers arrived in the armoured United Nations vehicle made available to Mr. Malik by the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General. These UNPOL officers had been sent to the area by Mr. Malik. The two United Nations vehicles then drove towards the PNTL headquarters arriving at about 1 p.m. Again the United Nations flag was displayed from the car of Colonel Reis. The ceasefire arrangements were explained to Chief of Operations Afonso de Jesus. Colonel Reis stressed that the surrender of arms was voluntary and only disarmed police officers would be allowed to leave. As the process of collecting weapons began, an additional six United Nations vehicles carrying UNPOL officers, including Mr. Malik, arrived. Colonel Reis and Mr. Malik had a heated verbal exchange. As the weapons collection was finalized, the PNTL officers were assembled in columns on the road flanked by United Nations vehicles.
82. A few minutes after the United Nations vehicles entered the PNTL headquarters and after the ceasefire had taken effect, one soldier, Ricardo Ribeiro Bure, was killed near the PNTL perimeter wall from a burst of fire originating from within the PNTL compound. F-FDTL soldier Francisco Amaral appeared at the Ministry of Justice intersection. His uniform was partially soaked in blood. An UNPOL officer asked if he had been injured, and was told that Mr. Amaral’s friend had just been killed by PNTL.
Shooting of PNTL officers
83. Colonel Reis led the PNTL officers on foot from their headquarters towards the Ministry of Justice intersection. He was carrying the United Nations flag. Before leaving the officers were warned to avoid eye contact with the soldiers on the side of the road and were warned not to run. F-FDTL soldiers involved in the shooting have told the Commission that the assembled police were arrogant and singing; however, the Commission accepts contrary evidence that the demeanour of the PNTL officers indicated that they were afraid. A feeble attempt at singing the national anthem quickly died. The same F-FDTL soldiers have told the Commission that they were uncertain if the PNTL officers had actually surrendered because they did not have their hands on their heads, they could have been concealing weapons in their backpacks and they were marching not behind a white flag, but that of the United Nations.
84. The column set off at about 1.45 p.m. Lieutenant Colonel Mann and an UNPOL officer went ahead of the column to speak with the F-FDTL soldiers on the street in an attempt to keep things calm. When most of the policemen had walked through the intersection, one F-FDTL soldier appeared to be agitated and searching for someone among the police officers. The F-FDTL soldiers say that one of the policemen had made a rude hand gesture at them. Mr. Malik attempted to speak with the agitated soldier, but the soldier sidestepped and fired into the policemen. There was then gunfire from three corners of the intersection. The soldiers fired at PNTL officers already on the ground. Evidence before the Commission indicates that at least six F-FDTL soldiers were involved in the shooting. Contrary to persistent rumour, there is no evidence that PNTL officers, including those armed and given uniforms by F-FDTL, were involved in the shooting. The shooting lasted about two or three minutes and involved at least 100 rounds of ammunition. Eight PNTL officers were killed and 27 others suffered serious gunshot injuries.
85. Mr. Malik coordinated the evacuation of the wounded officers to Obrigado Barracks. This destination was chosen because the wounded PNTL officers expressed fear of F-FDTL reprisal if they were taken to the hospital. Colonel Reis and his deputy remonstrated with Brigadier General Ruak, who apologized for the shooting. Three soldiers allegedly responsible for the shooting were paraded before the Brigadier General. Only one admitted to having participated in the shooting and stated that he was upset by the PNTL killing of Bure after the ceasefire had been established.
Following the incident, the PNTL disintegrated as a force in Dili and remaining F-FDTL forces were ordered to remain in their barracks. On the 26th of May, the first Australian soldiers landed in Dili and began securing the airport. In the resulting security vacuum, violence by youth gangs allied loosely with either faction, and both factions themselves broke out around Dili. Armed groups attacked residents of rival ethnicity, burning and looting homes, and generally terrorizing the city throughout June. The violence caused an humanitarian emergency, with approximately 150,000 internally displaced persons – mostly easterners – and over 2000 homes damaged or destroyed as of early October 2006. The arrival of over 3200 peacekeepers somewhat stabilized the situation; violence has since diminished, but sporadic burning, looting, and east-west street fights continue at present.
The COI Report found enough evidence to establish six F-FDTL soldiers were “reasonably suspected of murder” in the PNTL massacre. The COI Report recommended Nelson Francisco Cirilo da Silva, Francisco Amaral, Armindo da Silva, Paulino da Costa, José da Silva and Raimondo Madeira be prosecuted.
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