KUPANG, INDONESIA — Battalion 745 Commander Lt. Col. Yacob Sarosa denies that his troops murdered any civilians as they pulled out of East Timor last September.
In an interview this January, he and Col. Muhammad Noer Muis, commander of the Indonesian military's Dili headquarters last September, said that the convoy repeatedly came under fire from pro-independence guerrillas. The 745 soldiers only used their guns in response to attacks.
Hermenegildo dos Santos, the former 745 sergeant, describes the atmosphere on the convoy as happy, but Colonel Sarosa says his troops were angry. "We were emotional," he says. "We just suspected everyone. We felt that everyone could attack us, could ambush us."
Sarosa attended Indonesia's military academy and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in 1984. The military selected him for special training in the US, and he spent six months at Fort Benning, Ga., in 1990. He held the rank of major during the events of September 1999, but was later promoted.
Wearing slacks, a short-sleeved blue oxford shirt, and a watch that says Rolex, he denies his soldiers killed pro-independence supporters near Los Palos or civilians in Buruma and Caibada. "It's not true," he says.
A trim, youthful man with the narrow face and pointy chin typical of Indonesians from Java, Sarosa says he encouraged his troops to be neutral and to respect the outcome of East Timor's vote on independence.
He says he did not tell his soldiers to "destroy everything" if East Timorese rejected Indonesian rule and did not hear Lieutenant Camilo say to convoy members: "If you find anything on the way, just shoot it."
He has no comment about the allegation that the convoy abducted and tortured two young men at Laleia who were suspected of belonging to the Falintil guerrilla army. He has a similar response when told that Laleia residents say the convoy murdered two other men as it passed through the town: "I have not heard those stories."
The two officers acknowledge the convoy's encounter with British reporter Jon Swain and his colleagues in Becora. Colonel Muis says he put two of Sarosa's lieutenants in detention for two weeks for taking the journalists' gear and for shooting the tires of the taxi. He had Sarosa jailed for a week for failing to maintain discipline.
But Sarosa denies that Swain's driver was brutalized and that his interpreter was abducted. "There was no violence," Sarosa says, adding, "I left them in good condition." He had no comment about the allegation that soldiers shot Manuel Andreas, a Becora resident.
Regarding the killing of Sander Thoenes, the two officers are adamant that Battalion 745 was not involved, suggesting that "local people" murdered the reporter.
Sarosa dismisses the account of Becora farmer Alexandre Estevao, who says he saw Battalion 745 troops shooting at Thoenes and his driver and then dragging Thoenes away from the road. He also denies the statement by Mr. dos Santos, who was on the convoy, that the vehicles halted near where Thoenes's body was found.
"No," says Sarosa. In between the encounter with Swain and the arrival at the military headquarters in Dili, "the convoy did not stop."
Sarosa and Muis agreed to an interview on the condition that the Monitor seek additional comment from senior military officers in Jakarta. Those officials refused interviews, despite numerous written requests summarizing the accusations against the 745.
At the end of the interview, Muis leaned across the table for emphasis. "You've got to believe that what we've said is the truth."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society