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Australia still haunted by Balibo Five murders

As Chief of UNTAET Sergio Vierra de Mello, center, inspects U.N. peacekeeper troops during his farewell ceremony in Dili, questions remain unanswered about the murdered newsmen
As Chief of UNTAET Sergio Vierra de Mello, center, inspects U.N. peacekeeper troops during his farewell ceremony in Dili, questions remain unanswered about the murdered newsmen  

By Grant Holloway

SYDNEY, Australia (CNN) -- The deaths of five journalists in Balibo, East Timor, in October 1975 as Indonesia launched its campaign to occupy the former Portuguese colony, marked a sharp rise in Australia's awareness of events in the territories to its north.

The five Australia-based newsmen died during the invasion of the border town of Balibo by the Indonesian army, but the details of precisely how or why they died are still not publicly known.

Balibo was then in Portuguese Timor, attacked from nearby Indonesian West Timor as Indonesia began its occupation of the former Portuguese colony.

Official reports said the newsmen were killed by crossfire as they attempted to film an Indonesian attack on the town on October 16, 1975, the first full day of the occupation operation.

The deaths of the Balibo Five, as they became known, and allegations of murder became a lingering sore point in Australia-Indonesian relations during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.

Accounts of the event differed, with one view holding that the newsmen were killed accidentally in the heat of battle and another that they were deliberately sought out and executed by the Indonesian military.

Twenty seven years later, controversy still surrounds the Balibo Five.

It became clear, with the release of official documents last year, that the Australian government of the time not only knew about the imminent invasion of the town, but they failed to warn the journalists of the likely danger they were in.

Documents released by current Foreign Minister Alexander Downer show Australia's embassy in Jakarta received full details from Indonesia of the timing of the Balibo attack three days before it occurred.

It also appeared Australia had always been complicit in the invasion of the territory.

The then Labor government of Gough Whitlam virtually assured the Indonesian annexation of the region by indicating to Indonesia's Suharto administration that it would not oppose such an action.

While Australia supported a United Nations general assembly resolution condemning the Indonesian action, Canberra had quietly told Jakarta it did not want to get involved in East Timor.

The embarrassing deaths of the Balibo Five sent the foreign affairs department into damage control.

Today, the issue is still sensitive and details of the circumstances surrounding the deaths are hard to uncover.

The Australian journalists' union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, says Canberra has in the past deliberately disrupted investigations into the case for fear of further embarrassment.

The United Nations Transitional Authority in East Timor (UNTAET) is still investigating the killings of Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie.

Early last year United Nations civilian police investigators concluded a seven-month investigation into the killings and requested international arrest warrants for retired Indonesian general Yunus Yosfiah, Indonesian soldier Christoforus da Silva and East Timorese Domingos Bere on the basis of prima facie evidence they had compiled.

The case remains unsolved.




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