East Timor rebel leader surrenders

Gastao Salsinha's surrender may signal a weakening of the rebellion that has engulfed the former Indonesian island since its independence in 2002.

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A rebel leader accused of involvement in the near-fatal shooting of East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta in February has surrendered to authorities. Government officials said the surrender of Gastao Salsinha and 11 of his armed followers brings to a close to a destabilizing rebellion that began in 2006 with the firing of 600 disgruntled soldiers.

Deputy Prime Minister Jose Luis Gutteres, who presided over Tuesday's surrender, said Mr. Salsinha and other rebels would now be brought to justice, the BBC reports. He said the rebellion was officially over, and described it as "a historic moment for the people of East Timor."

East Timor, which lies on an island shared with Indonesia, has struggled to stand on its own feet since independence in 2002 after three years of UN tutelage. The 2006 military purge sparked months of unrest that forced many Timorese to flee their homes. A bold attack in February on Mr. Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who escaped unhurt in a separate road ambush, roiled the nation and prompted Australia to beef up its peacekeeping forces in Timor, reported The Christian Science Monitor.

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But the death of another rebel leader during the attacks and public outrage over the violence appeared to weaken the rebellion, and hundreds of former soldiers have since disarmed and turned themselves over to authorities, reported the BBC.

The Associated Press says that Ramos-Horta, who recently returned to Timor after two months of hospital treatment and recovery in Australia, held an emotional meeting Tuesday with the rebels at the presidential palace. Ramos-Horta, a former journalist turned roving diplomat, spent more than two decades campaigning against Indonesia's brutal occupation of his country. Last year, he was elected president, after previously serving as the country's prime minister.

Marcelo Caetano, the rebel [who] President Jose Ramos-Horta said shot him, cried and kissed the president's hand as the television cameras rolled outside the palace.
"I am happy our sons returned to Dili and surrendered their weapons," he told reporters, weeping. "The truth will be established by the court."
In an interview with the military, commander Salsinha apologized to the people of East Timor, "who suffered during the crisis and many of whom are still living in refugee camps.
"My men surrendered for the people of this country.... They are ready to face justice," he said.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. says that Salsinha had been negotiating the terms of his surrender since late last week and was escorted by UN and Timorese police to the capital Dili. The UN has said it expects Salsinha and his followers to be charged over the Feb. 11 attacks. Four other suspects have separately been arrested in Indonesia and handed over to Timorese authorities.

On Saturday, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that his country was recalling troops from Timor due to improving security and the recent lifting of a state of emergency imposed in February, reports Agence France-Presse. Australian-led peacekeepers arrived in 2006 amid fighting between military factions and police, and about 200 more were deployed following February's attacks. The planned withdrawal of 200 Australian troops leaves about 750 Australian military personnel in Timor.

Last week, thousands of ordinary Timorese, as well as political leaders and foreign diplomats, turned out to welcome Ramos-Horta back to Dili, reported Reuters. Students beat drums and performed a dance while soldiers stood guard during the homecoming. He moved back to his beachside house in the capital, where the shooting took place, despite advice from security officials to move to a more secure location.

Ramos-Horta, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, has often said he wished for a quieter life to write his memoirs of East Timor's long struggle for independence from Indonesian rule.
He told CNN recently he would miss the days when he could mingle with his people without being bothered about security.
"I am saddened by the fact that these pleasures may be gone for me now," he said. "We have lost something. But we will find a way to remain close."

Prior to Tuesday's surrender, East Timor's government had offered to reinstate rebel soldiers in the military or pay them the equivalent of three years in salary, reports The Age, a Melbourne, Australia, newspaper. The deal hinged on Salsinha, though, as government officials worried that cashiered soldiers may take the money and rejoin him in the mountains.

Negotiations over the offer have been at a sensitive stage for weeks.
Although 80 [percent] of the men want to rejoin the army, analysts say their return to the ranks could revive hostilities over accusations that soldiers from western parts of the country were discriminated against by those from the east.
Mr Gusmao needs to secure the deal if the country is to return to peace, analysts say.

Many Timorese have questioned the motives behind February's attacks, and speculation has intensified since Ramos-Horta claimed that a slain rebel commander who led the assault on his house jointly held a bank account in Australia containing hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Australian reports that Ramos-Horta has linked the account to the attacks and demanded to know who was backing Alfredo Reinado, the rebel leader. Timor has formally requested Australian help in tracing the bank account, said to contain around $700,000. Ramos-Horta has also accused individuals in Indonesia, the former occupying power, of involvement.

While Ramos-Horta has vowed to bring his attackers to justice, some political leaders have also suggested that presidential pardons for rebels would help heal social divisions. The Economist says that East Timor (officially, the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste) has a poor record of holding wrongdoers to account, as has its former occupier Indonesia, which sponsored East Timorese militia blamed for a murderous rampage in 1999. Only one person was convicted in Indonesia over the violence, but a court freed him earlier this month. The 2006 violence in East Timor has also gone unpunished: Four soldiers convicted of shooting policemen during clashes were freed on appeal and allowed to vanish.

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