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Aformer Indonesian soldier said he was there when Indonesian military forces killed the five Australian journalists who died in Balibo, East Timor, in October 1975, and burned their bodies to conceal the evidence that the military was active in that area.
However, he gave contradictory accounts of precisely what happened that day.
Col. (Ret.) Gatot Purwanto, then a first lieutenant in the Sandi Yudha Special Forces Command, which took part in plainclothes military operations in East Timor, told Tempo magazine that he witnessed the incident that day on the outskirts of Balibo.
Gatot told the magazine that the five journalists — Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie — were alive when the soldiers arrived at the house and “arrested” them.
He said the soldiers faced a dilemma because if the journalists were freed they could tell the world the Indonesian military was operating in that area.
They wanted at all costs to make sure the presence of the Indonesian military remained secret, he said, adding that the troops had entered East Timor secretly and were not wearing their uniforms.
Indonesia did not officially invade East Timor until December, three months later.
“Thus it was difficult to make decision. Maybe from higher-up it was considered to be the best solution. I don’t know for sure,” he said.
“If we had not executed them, they could testify that it was true that there was an invasion by the Indonesian army.”
Gatot could not immediately be reached for additional comment.
However, Gatot also told the magazine the journalists were killed when soldiers opened fire on the house where they were located in response to gunfire believed to have come from the direction of the house.
“So the shooting took place because there was a provocation from the area of the house where they were hiding,” he reportedly said.
Gatot said the journalists’ bodies were taken to the nearby home of a local Chinese shop owner and were burned using paddy husks.
“If they’re dead and we ignore the bodies, there would be evidence that they were shot in an area taken over by Indonesian soldiers. To make it easy, we just got rid of all traces. We said we knew nothing. That was our spontaneous reaction,” Gatot said.
Gatot spoke after watching a screening of “Balibo,” an Australian-made film about the deaths of the five journalists. The screening was held by the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI), despite a ban by the Film Censorship Institute (LSF).
Air Vice Marshal Sagom Tamboen, a military spokesman, said he respected what Gatot was reported to have said but berated the Australian filmmakers for bringing the movie into Indonesia.
“The film has triggered this problem. They should not have brought the movie to Indonesia,” Tamboen said.
He said that Gatot never stated that the Australian journalists had been shot by Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI) at that time.
He added that in time of war all those in the war zone faced the same risk.
“If someone who shouldn’t have been hit was hit, that’s the risk. Why were they on the battlefield? It is the same risk for any soldier on the battlefield,” Sagom said.
The military has continued to say that the five journalists were killed in crossfire.