Call for a rescue helicopter ignored

Lindsay Murdoch in Dili

THE Australian military failed to send a helicopter to rescue East Timor’s Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, when he was hiding under bushes in the jungle during last Monday’s attacks in Dili.

Joaquim Fonseca, one of Mr Gusmao’s closest advisers, has told the Herald that Mr Gusmao and his driver, who ran into the jungle after one of the attacks, found their own way to a road where they hailed a local minibus when a helicopter failed to arrive.

Before the attack on Mr Gusmao’s motorcade, the President, Jose Ramos-Horta, was shot at the entrance to his home. He is recovering in hospital in Darwin, where he has undergone several operations. As he was coming out of an induced coma, Mr Ramos-Horta shouted, “Don’t shoot me, don’t shoot me”, before nurses calmed him, hospital sources told the Herald.

Worshippers in hundreds of churches across East Timor yesterday prayed for him to make a full recovery.

Andrew Nikolic, a spokesman for the Australian Defence Force, yesterday defended the response of Australians soldiers serving in East Timor’s International Stabilisation Force to the attacks, describing their actions as “commendable”. He said the Australians directed their response to Mr Gusmao’s home in the mountains above Dili where, it became known later, his wife Kirsty Sword-Gusmao was hiding under a bed with her three terrified children. She has told journalists that Portuguese police arrived at the house to take them to safety about 90 minutes after the attack on her husband.

Brigadier Nikolic said checks of the Australian-led stabilisation force’s logs show an Australian helicopter was flying over Mr Gusmao’s house within 30 minutes of it becoming aware of the possible presence of gunmen in the area.

But he said the helicopter could not land because the terrain was unsuitable.

A stabilisation force infantry platoon was sent to the house and reported from there that the situation was calm 56 minutes after Mr Fonseca’s call to the force, Brigadier Nikolic said. But Mr Fonseca said he was unhappy that a helicopter was not sent immediately to Mr Gusmao’s location in the jungle.

“If the Australian Government feel it necessary to hold an inquiry into this, why not?” he said. Mr Fonseca said he called the stabilisation force’s civilian liaison officer, Dillon Walsh, on the hotline number about 7.50am on Monday, more than an hour after gunmen had shot Mr Ramos-Horta.

Mr Fonseca said he had just spoken to Mr Gusmao from his hiding place and he requested a helicopter to rescue him and for another to fly to his house to check on his family. Mr Fonseca said Mr Walsh told him the force had not heard about any attack on Mr Gusmao.

“Well, I’m telling you information about the attack so you have heard about it,” Mr Fonseca said he told Mr Walsh, urging Australian forces to act.

Asked whether Mr Gusmao intended to complain about the failure to send a helicopter to rescue him, Mr Fonseca said the Prime Minister had his own avenues to pursue matters.

Mr Gusmao, who was unharmed in the attack, met his Australian counterpart, Kevin Rudd, for 40 minutes in private in Dili last Friday.

Mr Fonseca’s criticisms of the stabilisation force will further fuel dissatisfaction with the presence of the Australian soldiers in the country at a time when Australian SAS commandos are leading the hunt for the rebels responsible for the attacks.

East Timor’s army chief , Taur Matan Ruak, last week lashed out at the failure of the Australian and other foreign security forces in the country to prevent the attacks, and called for an independent investigation.

Meanwhile aid workers are becoming concerned about the fate of the roughly 35,000 displaced people living in 56 squalid refugee camps in Dili.

The Timorese Government, worried about signs of growing aid dependency, has asked the World Food Program to cut food supplies to the camps by half.

Allison Cooper, spokeswoman for the UN mission in East Timor, said last night that Mr Fonseca’s complaint would be included in a UN investigation into all aspects of security for the country’s leaders.

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