Lindsay Murdoch in Darwin
March 3, 2008
A REBEL commander who was at the home of East Timor’s President, Jose Ramos-Horta, the morning he was shot and seriously wounded has surrendered.
Amaro Da Costa, also known as “Susar”, has agreed to tell all he knows in the biggest breakthrough so far in the investigation into the February 11 attacks in the capital, Dili, military sources revealed yesterday.
Da Costa, a former police commando, was a confidant of the rebel leader Alfredo Reinado who was killed during a gunfight at Mr Ramos-Horta’s house.
His surprise surrender in a village near the town of Alieu, 120 kilometres south of Dili, early yesterday has fuelled speculation about the imminent surrender of other members of Reinado’s gang who have been hunted in the mountains since the attacks.
The gang’s leader, Gastao Salsinha, has been negotiating his surrender to the Catholic Church, military sources in Dili told the Herald.
The Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, who was also targeted in the attacks, has approved the church’s role, saying he does not want the rebels killed during a hunt led by Australian SAS troops.
Mr Gusmao made a new appeal yesterday for the remainder of the rebels to surrender. “I am asking you to co-operate with the joint command so that people can live in tranquillity,” he said from the government palace.
Filomeno Paixao, the head of the joint Timorese command established to hunt the rebels, confirmed after parading Da Costa at a press conference in Dili that negotiators have had direct contact with Salsinha.
“We hope he will surrender soon,” Mr Paixao told journalists.
The surrender of Da Costa, the most feared of Reinado’s men, follows the surrender of six of the rebels last week.
Salsinha, who took command of the gang after Reinado’s death, appears left with little option but to surrender despite telling journalists he would never do so.
His support base has crumbled since the attacks; more than 500 former soldiers he once led have arrived in Dili in the lead-up to negotiations aimed at settling their grievances that date back to 2006, when 600 were sacked after they had gone on strike. The sackings sparked violent upheaval that left 37 people dead and forced 150,000 from their homes.
Mr Gusmao’s government has indicated it is willing to give the former soldiers three years’ salary or else reinstate them in the army.
Investigators in Dili told the Herald Da Costa’s testimony will be a key to revealing Reinado’s motive for leading a group of armed men to Mr Ramos-Horta’s house on February 11. Security guards at the house have identified Da Costa, in his early 40s, as being there with Reinado.
Da Costa had been at Reinado’s side since May 2006 when, according to a United Nations inquiry, Reinado and 11 of his men became involved in a gunbattle with Timorese soldiers that left five people dead and 11 wounded.
He was with Reinado in March last year during a botched attack by the SAS in the town of Same in the central mountains, and when Reinado led a mass escape from Dili’s main jail in August 2006.
He walked calmly into Turiscai village at 2am yesterday and handed two high-powered weapons to Timorese security forces who had been hunting him.
Meanwhile, Mr Ramos-Horta continues to recover in Royal Darwin Hospital where he was visited at the weekend by the interim president, Fernando de Araujo. Relatives say he can sit up and is eager to return to work.