Page last updated at 14:01 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 15:01 UK

Australia to probe E Timor deaths

Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters, Tony Stewart,
The five were Malcolm Rennie, Greg Shackleton, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Tony Stewart

Australian police have launched a war crimes investigation into the deaths in East Timor in 1975 of the "Balibo Five" group of journalists.

In 2007, an Australian coroner found that they were executed by Indonesian special forces in the town of Balibo.

It is believed they were killed to stop them revealing details of an impending Indonesian invasion of East Timor.

Indonesia maintains the men were killed in crossfire. An official said Jakarta had no intention of reopening the case.

Successive Australian governments have accepted Indonesia's version of events.

In June, East Timor President Jose Ramos Horta - a Timorese resistance commander at the time - accused Indonesian soldiers of having tortured and deliberately killed the journalists.

"Allegations of war crimes committed overseas give rise to complex legal and factual issues that require careful consideration by law enforcement agencies before deciding to investigate," the Australian Federal Police (AFP) said in a statement.

Hard-hitting movie

The AFP said that if sufficient material was uncovered to show "criminality or a real possibility of criminality", it would ask Australia's chief prosecutor to consider whether war crimes charges should be laid.

Map of East Timor

"The standard of proof in a criminal proceeding is high, and differs from that of a coronial inquiry," it added.

The inquiry follows the recent release of a hard-hitting movie, Balibo, depicting the deaths of Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart, Britons Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie and New Zealander Gary Cunningham.

The film shows them being shot on the orders of Indonesian army officers.

But Indonesia Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah told the BBC that for his country, the case was closed and the government would not reopen it.

He said an investigation would be very difficult anyway, as many of the witnesses to the events may no longer be alive.

The Indonesian government has not received notice from the AFP about the investigation and is seeking clarification on the issue.

An Australian coroner's investigation determined that the five men were murdered as they tried to surrender to Indonesian soldiers in the border town of Balibo.

The coroner recommended war crimes charges against several Indonesian special forces officers, including Yunus Yosfiah, a captain at the time who rose to the rank of general and served as information minister in the late 1990s.

He has admitted being involved in the Indonesian attack on Balibo, but denies involvement in the journalists' deaths.

Legacy of mistrust

Indonesian troops invaded East Timor shortly after Portugal withdrew in 1975, ending 450 years as its colonial ruler.

At least 100,000 people are estimated to have died as a result of Indonesia's 25-year occupation. East Timor achieved formal independence in 2002.

According to BBC Asia analyst Jill McGivering, the focus on the Balibo five has endured partly because of the wider questions it raises for many Australians about the role of their own government at the time.

Questions remain over how aware Australian politicians and other governments were of the impending Indonesian invasion, and whether they should have acted more robustly.

Since independence, East Timor's leaders have resisted calls for tribunals or investigations into the deaths of the many East Timorese who died.

They want people to forget the past and move on, but for some people, that lack of accountability has compounded a sense that justice has not been done.

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