The 745 convoy encounters an adversary that fires back

Candido Soares, a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and pitted complexion, was listening anxiously to the crackling reports coming over his radio. It was mid-morning on Sept. 21.

Battalion 745 was heading his way.

Mr. Soares, a regional commander in East Timor's Falintil guerrilla army, had encountered Indonesian soldiers before, but this convoy was particularly menacing.

Soares knew that throughout East Timor, troops and allied militia groups had been destroying whatever they could, clearly trying to leave nothing behind but smoldering embers. But he'd also heard about the activities of Battalion 745 in previous days. Its focus, he says, "was to kill people, not to burn houses."

The convoy was nearing Laleia, a picturesque town with a pink, double-belfried church that overlooks a river valley filled with rice paddies. More importantly for Soares, Laleia was the turn-off to a Falintil camp in the rumpled hills of East Timor's interior. The guerrillas didn't know whether the convoy would pass by or turn inland and attack the camp. They tracked the 745's progress from lookout positions and passed the information along by radio.

Falintil's leaders had promised the UN, which had organized East Timor's Aug. 30 vote on independence, to abstain from violence. But the camp had to be defended. The guerrilla fighters began taking up positions on the Laleia side of the river. The area had long been a Falintil stronghold, a loyalty not lost on the 745.

The convoy approached slowly and stopped short of the 250-foot-long steel bridge spanning the river. Soldiers unloaded mortars, bazookas, and other weapons and took up positions along the road and river bank.

It's not clear who fired first. Battalion commander Yacob Sarosa says the Falintil ambushed his troops at Laleia. Soares - and Hermenegildo dos Santos, the former 745 sergeant - say the battalion's troops methodically prepared for a clash and then attacked. For nearly two hours, the two sides exchanged fire.

But the Falintil fighters were clearly out-gunned by 745's light artillery. They fanned out along the opposite side of the river, firing their rifles at the convoy, trying to dissuade the troops from attacking their camp. They only managed to wound a 745 soldier in the foot before ultimately pulling back into the cover of the surrounding hills.

Their own losses were greater. The 745's Major Sarosa counted four dead guerrillas. Soares says the four were wounded and have recovered.

Under orders to exit East Timor, the convoy did not take the turn-off to the Falintil camp after they crossed the bridge and entered Laleia. Instead, soldiers began searching the town.

They must have noticed that Beatriz Freitas's front door wasn't locked from the outside, because soldiers kicked it down. Meekly, her hands above her head, the small, fine-featured woman emerged from her hiding place at the back of the house. "They were very angry about something that happened at the bridge," says Freitas, who had heard the shooting and explosions herself.

She gave them her identity card and replied to the soldiers' questions gently and respectfully. She had thought her home would be a safe place. "I'm a woman, so they didn't kill me," she says.

Instead they set her house on fire and put her on the back of a truck with two young men they had apprehended in Laleia. Freitas says her fellow passengers were bruised, bloody, and very afraid.

Mr. dos Santos, the former 745 sergeant, says the troops believed the two men were pro-independence supporters and possibly Falintil members. Despite being beaten and tortured with a bayonet, he adds, they insisted they were traveling home to Baucau, having come from Dili.

All three were driven up the road to Manatutu and handed over to other Indonesian soldiers. Freitas was eventually taken to West Timor before finding her way back home. The two young men have never been seen again.

After the residents of Laleia returned from the hills, they found evidence of two killings they attribute to the convoy. A quarter mile east of the bridge, the charred chassis of a motorcycle lay by the side of the road. Several weeks later, a shepherd found the remains of a man's body, dumped into a hillside crevice, some 50 yards away.

When Francisca da Costa Ximenes returned to her family's house in Laleia, she had reason to fear for the life of her brother Francisco: There was blood, possibly his blood, on the floor of their house. The young man had stayed in the town while the rest of the family was up in the hills.

Searchers found Francisco's body at the bottom of a ravine that cuts close to the road heading toward Dili.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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