A Frustrating Manhunt in Timor

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John Wilson for TIME

East Timor MP Vitor Dos Santos inside his house in Dili on Feb. 17

Just before dawn on Feb. 16, dozens of Australian soldiers crept silently into Fatu Metan, a district in the west of the East Timorese capital, Dili. They surrounded a small house and laid a ladder up against the partially completed second story; across the road, snipers with laser sights took up positions on the roof of a partly demolished house. The soldiers, members of the International Stabilization Force attempting to restore calm to East Timor, believed that hiding inside the three-bedroom home was one of the country's most wanted men, Lieutenant Gustao Salsinha — sought in connection with the Feb. 11 attacks on President Jose Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. They slipped up the ladder, through the upper story, down the stairs and into one of the bedrooms, where they tapped the leg of a figure lying on a bed. Their prize gave a piercing girlish scream. It was not the ruthless guerrilla fighter they were hoping for, but the teenage daughter of an East Timorese legislator, lawyer Vitor Dos Santos.

A furious Dos Santos, who was woken by the raid, said the soldiers apologized, and offered him $100 to buy some candy for his children. "I'm still traumatized," he says. "They cannot just enter a house at night unless they see the suspect run in." He warns that if such raids continue "in breach of human rights, they will lose the support of the people." The clumsy offer of compensation did little to ease his anger. "I did not accept the money," he says.

For six days, Australian troops and UN police have been hunting the band of rebels thought to be behind the attacks on Gusmao and Ramos-Horta, who is recovering from his wounds in an Australian hospital. A spokesman for the ISF confirmed the search of Dos Santos' house, and said such operations would continue. The Chief of Australia's Defence Force, Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, said that Australian forces "will assist authorities in bringing these people to justice." But as Saturday's raid demonstrates, it will be no easy task.

Australia last week sent an extra 200 troops to join its existing contingent of 780 men, who, along with 170 New Zealanders, make up the ISF. The men they are pursuing spent the past two years under the leadership of rebel leader Major Alfredo Reinado, who was killed during what the government labeled an assassination attempt on Ramos-Horta. Under Reinado's leadership, the rebels were regularly hunted by the ISF's highly trained special forces but always managed to stay one step ahead of them.

Asked if the ISF will catch Salsinha and his men, politician Leandro Isaac, who once supported Reinado, smiled. "For over 20 years, they have experience with the Indonesian army chasing them," says Isaac, who spent two months in the jungle with Reinado and Salsinha. "The reason why they cannot catch them is they don't have any cooperation with the local community." Isaac has since fallen out with the rebels over their armed activities, but says the single battalion of Australian troops hunting them are wasting their time. "There are the hills, the mountains, caves, rivers to hide in. Indonesia had 18 battalions in Timor," he says, referring to the time Jakarta tried to suppress the Timorese independence movement, "and they never succeeded against the guerrillas in the forest." And, he says, the rebels enjoy popular support. "The local people will not tell them where they are hiding."

Just what information the soldiers are relying on is not being revealed, but many of the rebels may be changing their mobile phone SIM cards to avoid having their locations triangulated. In the absence of reliable intelligence, the ISF is forced to resort to broad-brush tactics. Earlier last week, Australian forces conducted a sweep around the tiny village of Dare, perched on the western mountain range that rises steeply behind Dili. The soldiers threw up checkpoints on the roads and declared the area a "media-free zone," denying access to journalists, but allowing Timorese to pass.

TIME's reporters walked around the checkpoint and spoke to Dare villagers, who said they had been well aware of the Australian operations but had not seen any rebels. "We know the helicopters come and drop special forces in the hills," said one farmer who did not want to give his name. As we walked further into the area, two Australian soldiers wearing camouflage paint on their faces burst out of the bushes and ordered us at gunpoint to get down on the ground. One of the soldiers, corporal Simon Zapelli, said he was detaining us "for your own safety" but declined to explain why locals were allowed to continue through the village if it was so dangerous. After three hours the soldiers released us, with one observing that there had been "some dangerous types in the area." When asked to elaborate, he said: "You're pissing in the wind there, buddy." Then we watched the soldiers return to fruitlessly searching the hillsides around us.