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Monitor contributor killed in East Timor

As peacekeeping forces moved into Dili, a foreign correspondent was shot. Others have been rescued.

September 23, 1999

Sander Thoenes, a correspondent for London's Financial Times who wrote regularly for the Monitor, was killed in East Timor Tuesday while covering the international effort to bring peace to the troubled territory.

So far, an Australian-led multinational force has had no significant opposition from the militias that have terrorized East Timor in recent weeks, but journalists have not been safe. A British reporter and an American photographer were ambushed by armed men on Tuesday. They hid from their attackers and were rescued by peacekeepers yesterday morning. Their driver was severely injured.

Mr. Thoenes, a Dutch citizen, is the first foreign reporter to die in East Timor since 1975. That year three Australians, two Britons, and a New Zealander were killed during Indonesia's violent takeover of the island territory, which had been a Portuguese colony.

Covering Indonesia can be dangerous for Indonesians as well. Four Indonesian reporters have died here since 1988, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York, a nonprofit organization dedicated to freedom of the press worldwide.

The government, and the military in Indonesia, have traditionally sought to control both domestic and foreign reporting, but the resignation of former President Suharto last May, after 32 years in power, has brought a liberalization of the media.

Even so, many Indonesians say that the international press is vilifying the country in its coverage of East Timor. The military is especially angry, says Goenawan Mohamad, the editor of a magazine closed for political reasons in 1994 and reopened last year, "because their atrocities are being exposed by the foreign media."

Mr. Mohamad says it is "very likely that they would harass or do something bad to foreign journalists."

'Rogue elements'

Sulaiman Abdulmanan, the spokesman for Indonesia's Department of Foreign Affairs, says the military "as an institution" would do no such thing. "But there are elements - rogue elements - in any society," he adds. "We can't control everybody."

Proposals to create a UN-backed international tribunal to investigate human-rights abuses in East Timor are especially galling to the government here. "Indonesia is in a critical period and everybody wants to blame it," says spokesman Abdulmanan. "We have done many positive things to try to solve the East Timor problem but nobody wants to see them," he adds.

The most obvious suspects in Thoenes's killing are the armed groups, known as militias, which have engaged in wanton destruction in East Timor since the territory's population voted to break away from Indonesia on Aug. 30.

The Indonesian military originally created the militias to help fight pro-independence guerrillas. During the run-up to the UN-sponsored referendum they took on a political role, campaigning for East Timor to remain part of Indonesia and often using violence and intimidation to make their point.

Voters in East Timor rejected their position by a margin of 4 to 1. But militia members insist that the United Nations officials, many of whom were Westerners, organized the vote in a biased manner and tampered with the balloting. After the results were announced Sept. 4, the militias reacted vengefully, displacing hundreds of thousands of East Timorese and forcing the UN and nearly every Westerner to flee the territory.

Militia or not?

The line between the militias and the military is sometimes invisible and in recent months eyewitnesses, and journalists have seen soldiers and police officers training militia members and joining in their rampages. The foreign media in particular has highlighted the military's complicity in militia activities.

The motorcycle driver whom Thoenes had hired to take him around the city said men in uniform attacked them. That in itself is not conclusive, since pro-independence guerrillas, militia members, and others wear police and military apparel in East Timor. But the early evidence points to the militias, who have vowed to attack peacekeepers and foreigners in general.

The commander of the international force, Australian Maj. Gen. Peter Cosgrove, said the attacks on journalists suggest "that the militia have attempted to step up some activities as a show that all is not yet secure. We are imposing some level of control in the close part of the city. However ... it is still a dangerous place."

Thoenes was not considered a risk-taker. "He was absolutely not a cowboy; he was very, very careful," said Bernard Estrade, a friend of Thoenes's and the Jakarta bureau chief for the Agence France-Presse news agency.

A lanky man with curly blond hair and a dry sense of humor, Thoenes understood the risks involved in his work. Last weekend he and a handful of other journalists worked hard to organize a charter flight to Dili.

But since the peacekeepers had not yet arrived and the Indonesian military would not provide even minimal security guarantees, Thoenes and his colleagues canceled the flight.

Last hours

On Tuesday, with peacekeepers on the ground, Thoenes flew to East Timor on another charter flight, dropped his bags at a hotel, and went out reporting. He hired a motorcycle driver to take him around the city.

Florindo da Conceicao Araujo, the driver, told reporters that the pair encountered men who had set up a roadblock in a part of Dili that had not been secured by the peacekeeping force.

They quickly turned around to flee, but the men gave chase and opened fire. Then, Mr. Araujo said, he lost control. "My motorcycle fell on the ground and dragged both of us for about 100 meters [yards]. The journalist fell on the asphalt," he said after returning to the hotel where Thoenes would have stayed Tuesday night.

"They chased after me and continued shooting but I ran off, losing one of my shoes," Araujo said. "I eluded them and came here with one shoe to report the incident."

Yesterday morning Thoenes's body was discovered behind an abandoned house, a bloodstained notebook by his side.

"He was a smart fellow who was trying to look after himself," says Hugh Carnegy, foreign news editor of the Financial Times. "He was a highly valued foreign correspondent."

"All of Sander's colleagues are saddened by his death," says David Cook, editor of The Christian Science Monitor. "As part of a news organization with a network of correspondents worldwide, I am deeply concerned about attacks on noncombatants, whether they be humanitarian workers or those who are engaged in reporting on historical events."

Cameron W. Barr
Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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