Companion to East Timor - Indonesian covert military operations in East Timor

Indonesian covert military operations in East Timor

Indonesia responded by means of an undeclared overland intervention from West Timor led by General Ali Murtopo. A Special Forces team deployed to Atambua in West Timor in order to train APODETI fighters, known as partisans. Two Indonesian special forces teams of about 100 men each then entered East Timor on the evening of 3-4 September 1975. They split into a number of teams and conducted probing attacks in the first half of September in order to test Fretilin's response and capabilities. In these attacks, members of Indonesia's Special Warfare Command (Komando Pasukan Sandhi Yudha, Kopassandha) divided into three teams (Team Susi, Team Tuti and Team Umi) worked alongside a group of East Timorese known as Partisans, causing the 'largest number of deaths from pre-invasion covert military operations.' On 8 September, Team Susi entered Ermera and confronted Fretilin forces. Each side lost a man in the fighting. Team Susi retreated to Haekesak in Atambua, West Timor, and then re-infiltrated through Asulau and Matarobu-Borro in Ermera. A former leader of the partisans has since confirmed that at least 70 civilians were killed in the fighting.

On 14 September, Indonesian special forces and East Timorese partisans attacked towns in the western districts of Ermera, Bobonaro and Covalima. They entered Batugade but were unable to hold it due to fierce resistance by Fretilin. Finally, on 7 October, 'a force of 100 special forces troops [and partisans] retook Batugade,' triggering an international armed conflict to which the 1949 Geneva Conventions applied. Three days later, President Suharto approved a plan to set up small enclaves just inside East Timor in order to 'nibble away at Fretilin from these enclaves.' The first of these enclaves would be established around the strategic town of Maliana. According to Australian intelligence, Indonesia hoped that Fretilin would be demoralized and that the population would rally to the pro-Indonesian side: 'This would obviate any need for an assault on Dili and major operations in the eastern part of the territory.'

At this time five foreign journalists (two Australian, two British and one New Zealander) were at the town of Balibo, which was not militarily significant in itself but was on the road to the Indonesian objective of Maliana. If the foreign journalists had obtained film footage of Indonesia's military campaign and conveyed it to the outside world, the cover story would have been blown. Indonesian special forces captured and killed them on the morning of 16 October. They then dressed the corpses in military uniforms, placed guns beside them, and took photographs of them in an attempt to portray them as legitimate targets.

The killing of the five foreign journalists caused alarm in the Indonesian high command. Worried about the international diplomatic consequences, they called a halt to the military operation and waited to see what the reaction would be. But there was no adverse reaction from Australia, Britain or New Zealand. This was the real 'green light'; the lack of international condemnation at the killing of five foreign journalists meant that the Indonesian military could treat the East Timorese as they wished. Accordingly, after five weeks without facing negative consequences, Indonesia resumed its operations, attacking Atabae on 20 November with naval and air support. Fretilin launched a large counter-attack against the Indonesian position at Maliana in order to disrupt the Indonesian build-up and relieve the pressure on Atabae. However, the Indonesian naval and air support proved decisive, as was the absence of a significant Fretilin reserve element. Atabae was captured on 27 November.

In order to focus greater international attention on the situation, Fretilin declared independence on 28 November, one day after the fall of Atabae. The next day, the four other East Timorese political parties – UDT, Apodeti, KOTA and Trabalhista – issued their 'Proclamation of Integration' accusing Fretilin of obstructing a peaceful solution and asking the Indonesian government and people to integrate East Timor into Indonesia. This proclamation has since been known as the Balibo Declaration. Indonesia invaded on 7 December 1975.