Alexandre Estevao, a farmer in the Becora suburb of East Timor's capital, says he witnessed Indonesian Army soldiers shooting Monitor contributor Sander Thoenes here on Sept. 21.
Mr. Estevao says the soldiers he saw wore military uniforms and insignia indicating they belonged to Battalion 745, a unit composed of East Timorese known for their loyalty to Indonesia and opposition to independence.
Peering from behind a water tank about 125 paces from the scene, Estevao says he watched the soldiers drag Mr. Thoenes's body off the road and into a palm-fringed lot of unused shacks where it was found the next morning. When the soldiers restarted their trucks and motorcycles, Estevao fled. "I was scared," he says.
Estevao's account is further evidence that Indonesia's military was complicit in Thoenes's death and indeed the overall violence that gripped East Timor last month, something officials and government leaders in Jakarta have denied. They say that "rogue elements" from the military may have been involved, but insist that the military as an institution was not.
According to Estevao, the troops were moving through Becora on five trucks and 10 motorcycles, some flying Indonesian flags. Battalion 745 officials could not be contacted for a reply to his allegation because the unit has left East Timor.
Thoenes came to East Timor to cover a multinational effort to restore order, following a destructive rampage by militia groups angered by the results of a UN-sponsored referendum in which East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence. The Indonesian military initially created the militias as a proxy force to fight pro-independence guerrillas in East Timor.
Thoenes is not the only journalist to die in East Timor this month. Indonesian journalist Agus Muliawan, affiliated with the Tokyo-based news organization Asia Press International, was killed on Sept. 25. He and several church workers he was traveling with were massacred near the town of Lautem, apparently by militia members.
Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, the Australian commander of the international force restoring order in East Timor, said yesterday that he had asked top officials of the Indonesian Army to return to Dili four particular Army officers "to assist in the inquiry" into Thoenes's death and an earlier attack against two other Western journalists, their translator, and their driver. The Army has not yet replied, Maj. Gen. Cosgrove said.
Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said her inquiry into the violence in East Timor will target specific members of the Indonesian military.
Estevao says he has given his testimony to UN investigators, who have also interviewed other witnesses in recent days. The UN has taken Thoenes's motorcycle- taxi driver to Darwin, Australia, presumably for his safety, and hosted an investigator from the Netherlands - Thoenes's homeland - who visited Dili to look into the reporter's death.
"This is by far the most professional investigation that's been conducted since I've been here," says Nicholas Birnback, a UN spokesman who arrived in East Timor in May.
Mr. Birnback credits the role of UN civilian police in pressing the case forward, but there may be other factors, including the publicity that sometimes follows the death or abduction of a journalist. In addition to his work for the Monitor, Thoenes wrote regularly for London's Financial Times and occasionally for the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland.
The first accusation against the military came from Thoenes's driver, who told reporters after the killing that the men who attacked them wore military uniforms.
One of the journalists attacked shortly before Thoenes was killed is Jon Swain, a British reporter who published a detailed account of his own experiences in London's Sunday Times on Sept. 26.
In that account, he describes encountering Battalion 745 members riding trucks and motorcycles near where Thoenes was killed. The soldiers threatened Mr. Swain and his American photographer colleague, clubbed their driver with a rifle, and abducted their translator, who has not been seen since.
Swain raised the possibility in his Sunday Times story that the men who attacked him and his colleagues later shot Thoenes.
In addition to the media's focus on one of its own, the Dutch government says it has acted quickly to promote high-level interest in the case. Dutch Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen, who was at UN headquarters in New York when Thoenes's death was confirmed, immediately raised the matter with UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas.
"There was a drive from this ministry to see that we get this sorted out," says Bart Jochams, a spokesman for the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We want to know who the killers are ... what really happened, and who is responsible."
*Monitor staffer Angela Wang contributed to this report from Amsterdam.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society