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Monitor contributor killed in East Timor

As peacekeeping forces moved into Dili, a foreign correspondent was

By Cameron W. BarrStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 23, 1999


Sander Thoenes, a correspondent for London's Financial Times who wrote regularly for the Monitor, was killed in East Timor Tuesday while covering the international effort to bring peace to the troubled territory.

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So far, an Australian-led multinational force has had no significant opposition from the militias that have terrorized East Timor in recent weeks, but journalists have not been safe. A British reporter and an American photographer were ambushed by armed men on Tuesday. They hid from their attackers and were rescued by peacekeepers yesterday morning. Their driver was severely injured.

Mr. Thoenes, a Dutch citizen, is the first foreign reporter to die in East Timor since 1975. That year three Australians, two Britons, and a New Zealander were killed during Indonesia's violent takeover of the island territory, which had been a Portuguese colony.

Covering Indonesia can be dangerous for Indonesians as well. Four Indonesian reporters have died here since 1988, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, a nonprofit organization dedicated to freedom of the press worldwide.

The government, and the military in Indonesia, have traditionally sought to control both domestic and foreign reporting, but the resignation of former President Suharto last May, after 32 years in power, has brought a liberalization of the media.

Even so, many Indonesians say that the international press is vilifying the country in its coverage of East Timor. The military is especially angry, says Goenawan Mohamad, the editor of a magazine closed for political reasons in 1994 and reopened last year, "because their atrocities are being exposed by the foreign media."

Mr. Mohamad says it is "very likely that they would harass or do something bad to foreign journalists."

'Rogue elements'

Sulaiman Abdulmanan, the spokesman for Indonesia's Department of Foreign Affairs, says the military "as an institution" would do no such thing. "But there are elements - rogue elements - in any society," he adds. "We can't control everybody."

Proposals to create a UN-backed international tribunal to investigate human-rights abuses in East Timor are especially galling to the government here. "Indonesia is in a critical period and everybody wants to blame it," says spokesman Abdulmanan. "We have done many positive things to try to solve the East Timor problem but nobody wants to see them," he adds.

The most obvious suspects in Thoenes's killing are the armed groups, known as militias, which have engaged in wanton destruction in East Timor since the territory's population voted to break away from Indonesia on Aug. 30.

The Indonesian military originally created the militias to help fight pro-independence guerrillas. During the run-up to the UN-sponsored referendum they took on a political role, campaigning for East Timor to remain part of Indonesia and often using violence and intimidation to make their point.

Voters in East Timor rejected their position by a margin of 4 to 1. But militia members insist that the United Nations officials, many of whom were Westerners, organized the vote in a biased manner and tampered with the balloting. After the results were announced Sept. 4, the militias reacted vengefully, displacing hundreds of thousands of East Timorese and forcing the UN and nearly every Westerner to flee the territory.