A Last Meeting with East Timor's Rebel Leader

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Photograph for Time by John Wilson

Rebel commander Major Alfredo Reinado (center) with two of his platoon members in the high mountain region of East Timor, Aug. 6, 2007.

In his last interview with TIME, renegade East Timorese Military Police commander Alfredo Reinado boasted that so good were his ambush and surveillance skills that he could sneak into the bedrooms of his country's leaders. "If I want to, I can kiss them while they are sleeping," he said in a July 2007 meeting in the heart of the Timor jungle.

On Monday morning, it looked as though the Australian-trained soldier's belief in his abilities had been ill-founded. Reinado was gunned down outside President Jose Ramos-Horta's compound during what authorities claim was an assassination attempt on the country's President and its Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmão. Reinado's comrades angrily deny this and say their commander had been invited into town for a meeting when he was attacked, and that Ramos-Horta was caught in the ensuing gunfight. Whatever the truth, the incident left Ramos-Horta with gunshot wounds to the stomach and back; he is in a stable but serious condition in Australia's Royal Darwin Hospital, where surgeons last night removed all but one of the high-velocity bullet fragments from his body.

Many Timorese were astonished by the news, for "the Major" — as Reinado was known locally — was considered a clever and cunning tactician who would rarely put himself in danger. In May 2006, half the Timorese army was dismissed following a strike protesting discrimination against soldiers from the west of the country. The government had used the army to crush the strike with great brutality: at least five men died and many more were wounded. Reinado led his men into the mountains in disgust. He had since eluded capture, using his intimate knowledge of the mountain and bush tracks of his eastern homeland, while a network of loyal villagers with mobile phones kept him apprised of the movements of United Nations Police and the troops of the Australian-led International Stabilisation Force (ISF).

A failed ISF attempt to capture him at the village of Same last year killed five of his men; ever since, Reinado appeared increasingly paranoid. Interviewing him several months after the raid (led by Australian special forces) involved lengthy mobile-phone contacts with intermediaries and sympathetic politicians. After his phone number was secured and contact made, he sent one of his men, disguised as a village local riding a motorcycle, to guide TIME to his hideout.

A jolting three-hour drive out of Dili led to a tiny village high in the razor-like ridges behind the city of Ermera. Reinado's man then hid TIME's vehicle under an old farmhouse roof and snaked through a warren of tiny villages. Suddenly a group of black-clad rebels armed with automatic rifles materialized on a small ridge. In the middle of a nearby glade, Reinado, dressed in camouflage fatigues, held court. "The leaders say different things in front of the people and then different things in the back of the people," he began, angrily waving his rifle. His bodyguards fidgeted nervously as an Australian Black Hawk helicopter thudded away over a distant peak. In a rambling — at times incomprehensible — conversation, Reinado accused the Australian government of installing Ramos-Horta as a puppet to preside over the oil-fuelled economy, said he feared his life was under threat by supporters of the leftist Fretilin party who still sought to rule the country, and claimed he was still true to his role as an army officer.

"If they don't be careful there will be civil war," he said. "Why are they scared to talk at the table, sit publicly with open dialogue? Why are they so scared that they want to kill me?" He held Ramos-Horta and Gusmão partly to blame for the Same raid. "Ramos-Horta was in the meeting with Xanana when they agreed to do this thing," he said. "What threat do I make for this nation? Which civilian do I threaten or kill? I have a right also to defend myself." He vowed never to lay down his arms. "Who does this gun belong to? It doesn't belong to Xanana or Horta. This belongs to the people of this country. I'm a citizen of this country and under the constitution I have a right to serve."

As he raged, he looked dramatically different from the enigmatic figure who inspired many East Timorese in 2006. In the days following his revolt, from a dilapidated mountain pousada at Maubisse, he successfully directed the battle to control the outskirts of Dili via mobile phone, all the while calmly strolling the building's spectacular battlements in his pajamas. Later that night, over dinner of curried chicken and beer in the dining room, he spoke lyrically of his desire to see East Timor succeed as a nation. With his death, as rumor and propaganda blur the details of the latest slaughter in Dili, that success seems a little further away.