The Raid that Went Wrong

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On paper it must have looked like an easy mission. In pursuit were more than 200 well-armed regular and special forces soldiers, with machine guns, tear gas and tracker dogs, and backed up by helicopters and armored personnel carriers. Their objective was to arrest Alfredo Reinado, the former East Timorese military police commander, and about 60 fellow deserters, armed only with assault rifles, who were holed up in a compound on a hilltop in Same village, some 50 km south of Dili.

But the hunters came up empty handed. Reinado and most of his men escaped (see Manhunt: The Raid on Reinado), leaving International Stabilization Force (ISF) troops fruitlessly scouring the heavily forested hills. Meanwhile, the attempt to capture the man many East Timorese see as a resistance hero triggered violent protests in Dili and a wave of hostility toward the ISF.

More than a week after the operation, ISF commanders still refuse to detail what happened, saying an investigation is underway. But one of the rebels who fled with Reinado claims that civilians were killed during the raid, that the rebels were fired on without warning, and that at least one had begged the soldiers not to shoot.

When TIME visited the scene of the raid—a run-down former administrator's House at Same, about 50km south of Dili, which the rebels took over on Feb. 26—Australian soldiers were still manning checkpoints on nearby access roads. Parts of the building's roof had been blown off, apparently by the downdraft from the two Black Hawk helicopters used in the raid, and there were bullet holes in some trees along nearby roads. Two boxes of medical supplies and a generator appeared to have been abandoned by the rebels.

On the weekend of March 10-11, TIME trekked into remote bush to meet with Reinado follower Nelson Galucho, who has been on the run since the raid. Galucho said that three days before the operation, ISF soldiers picked him up in the Emera district and took him to Dili, where he was questioned for two hours about Reinado's operations, weapons and number of followers, then flown back home. He says the soldiers later apologized for detaining him.

Surrounded by edgy bodyguards, Galucho gave his account of the abortive raid. He said his fellow rebel Deolindo Barros had been killed by Australian troops in one of the helicopters hovering over the rebel compound (see Manhunt: The Raid on Reinado). "Deolindo saw the soldiers and called out don't shoot, but they shot him," Galucho said. "They did not call out a warning or anything." Galucho, whose brother Nikson was wounded in the raid (he is now in custody in Dili), also said three civilians were killed in the raid, but was unable to provide any details or evidence for this.

The ISF has said that five men were killed in the raid. Four were named followers of Reinado (see Manhunt: The Raid on Reinado). The name of the fifth man has not been released, but the ISF says his body was found in thick bush on a hillside near the compound.

Australian soldiers kept Barros' body for two days after the raid; when delivered to the makeshift morgue at Dili's Gido Valadares hospital, it bore the marks of an autopsy—an examination Barros' family say was carried out without their permission. Holes and marks on Barros' clothes suggested he had been wounded in the back of the neck, right buttock and chest. Barros' sister, Francesca da Cruz, speculates that he was hit from behind by bullets fired from a helicopter.

Barros was buried at the weekend in his mountaintop village of Houba, 100 km southeast of Dili. More than 500 people filed into his plain farm cottage to view Barros' body as it lay in an open coffin beneath photographs of him and Reinado. Barros' distraught widow wants the East Timorese and Australian governments to pay for her three children's education. Midway through the funeral, an ISF helicopter flew slowly overhead. Local youths called out, "F__k off, Aussie," but the majority of mourners said they did not hold Australia responsible for Barros' death. Some, however, said the ISF was allowing itself to be used as a tool of the East Timorese government.

Four days after the raid, some two dozen Australian special-forces soldiers blocked an intersection just south of Same and questioned people who passed. The group's commanding officer said they were "there to protect the safety of the people." Local residents said a group of Reinado's men had headed west towards the small mountain town of Alas, about 65 km southwest of Dili, and that troops had been scouring the rugged area on foot and by helicopter.

Galucho told TIME that Reinado was still in hiding but able to communicate with supporters. "He is very sad about what they [the ISF] have done, and the government should have had an open mind and not acted in a way that created a problem," Galucho said. He and the other rebels wanted to negotiate, he said, but would not do so while Australian forces were still in the country: "They may try and kill us, so why would we try and negotiate with them?"

A spokesman for the ISF, Squadron Leader Ivan Benitez, said, "Five armed East Timorese men were killed during the Same operation when they posed an immediate threat to ISF soldiers." He refused to provide any details about the mission or the circumstances of the deaths, or to comment on Galucho's allegation about civilian deaths. In addition to the current ISF investigation into the incident, a United Nations Police investigation is to begin within days.