The free world’s “sheriff” in the Pacific has assembled a heavily-armed force of soldiers and airmen to pursue one man accused of fomenting rebellion in one of the world’s newest countries.
East Timor broke away from Indonesia, with which it shares a border, in 1999 after a 25-year occupation and formerly declared independence in 2002. An “International Stabilization Force” comprising more than a thousand Australian and New Zealand military personnel assists a U.N. police force and local security forces in keeping the peace as the country develops. “Operation Astute” represents Australia’s second-largest foreign deployment after Iraq, and was one of the activities U.S. President George W. Bush apparently had in mind when he bestowed the “sheriff” title on Australia.
Now that honor is being put to the test. Last year, a former Timorese police officer, Major Alfredo Reinado, gathered a 600-strong army of disaffected policemen to challenge the government, which was carefully planning for a critical presidential election scheduled for April 9. In recent weeks, Reinado’s force has raided government facilities and stolen weapons.
“Alfredo Reinado is a fugitive who must face justice,” says Australian Army Brigadier Mal Rerden, commander of the stabilization force. To that end, in early March Australian troops supported by armed UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters raided Reinado’s alleged base, killing five rebels, wounding others and taking several prisoners –- at least one of whom will stand trial. Reinado either escaped or was not present during the raid.
Recent weeks have seen a spike in ISF activities aimed at apprehending Reinado and ensuring security for the election. Australian OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopters keep an eye on the capital city of Dili. Australian armored personnel carriers and Australian and New Zealand infantry patrol Dili and some outlying villages and set up vehicle checkpoints. “Our intensive operations over the last month have reduced his ability to operate,” Rerden says of the rebel leader.
One checkpoint operation in Dili last week netted 31 illegal weapons: one pistol and 30 “traditional weapons,” according to Australian Army Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Gallaway. In East Timor, traditional weapons include improvised bows shooting arrows fashioned from sharpened rebar. In a clash between opposing political parties in front of the Australian embassy in Dili two weeks ago, rioters wielding bows killed a rival armed with a pistol.
--Cross-posted at Military.com