Elite forces scouted island from April

Daring to win ... Australian Special Forces soldiers during an exercise.

By IAN HUNTER, in London

Australian special forces and navy divers were scouting the terrain of East Timor and Indonesian forces deployments inside the territory months before the actual landing of United Nations-approved peacemakers last month, a senior Australian defence source has revealed. Members of the elite Perth-based Special Air Services Regiment and the Royal Australian Navy's Clearance Diving Team (CDT) have been operating clandestinely on the island since early this year.

The sole task of the two elite units was reconnaissance in preparation for a large Australian Defence Force (ADF) deployment.

The SAS's principal subjects have been infrastructure in and around Dili, Indonesian ground force operations in the hinterland and movements of military traffic across the West Timor frontier. CDT divers scoured Dili harbour and nearby anchorages for anti-shipping mines, explosives and traps. They also surveyed nearby sites in case an amphibious landing became necessary. From the shore they scouted for Indonesian military (TNI) and militia obstacles and deployments.

The two units train together off the coast near Perth. While the SAS, whose strength is put at "over 500" by the Defence Department, stayed at Swanbourne for the Gulf War, the CDT performed Timor-style work in Kuwait during that conflict. Their orders did not authorise offensive strikes, interdiction or sabotage. Deployed by submarine and extracted by helicopter, they were inserted when the Prime Minister put the Darwin-based 1 Brigade on 28-day standby in April.

Although the helicopter flights were made at extremely low level to avoid detection by radar, the TNI did make it known in June that it was aware of unauthorised intrusions, though it suspected the flights involved covert weapons shipments to independence fighters.

On June 9, the Indonesian armed forces commander, General Wiranto, ordered increased naval and air surveillance off the East Timor coast after five helicopter flights were reported in May and June.

The then East Timor military commander, Colonel Tono Suratman, said there had been two helicopter landings in the area of Larinkuten, near Viqueque, of a large helicopter similar to the French-designed Puma. At the same time as the helicopter landings were reported, a vessel with a helicopter landing pad had also been sighted off East Timor's coast, he said.

The description fits with the Seahawk helicopters operated from RAN frigates.

The covert operations before the creation of the Interfet force are classified secret and will remain so under the Federal Cabinet's 30-year rule.

A senior ADF special forces and intelligence officer recently said the small force was observing Indonesian military activity as a necessary precursor to full-scale deployment. The same tactics were used by the British SAS during the 1982 Falklands and 1990-91 Gulf wars.

In July the same officer was saying that the official outlook was that the ADF would deploy shortly and that ensuing peacekeeping and United Nations stabilisation plans would be similar to those effected in Cambodia in 1991.

At that time, he said that ADF headquarters in Canberra expected the eventual UN-sponsored intervention force to be small and include only a minimal armed security force. ADF planning did not anticipate an Australian component as large as 4,500 personnel.

The SAS and CDT cells transmitted constant reports on TNI and militia activities to ADF headquarters and the ultra-secret Defence Signals Directorate (DSD), also in Canberra. Only 20 or so people, including the Prime Minister, were allowed access to these reports and attached assessments. Most members of Cabinet have not seen them. The job of the DSD has been to analyse the reports and conclude whether the recent atrocities were a sustained policy of terror or a violent reaction to impending independence.

The SAS cells, comprising no more than five troopers, would never have been in a position to intervene. Such operations would have required the support of the SAS's Sabre Squadron, which has not seen action since the Vietnam War.

In armed contact with the TNI and militia, the general observations, technical descriptions and assessments of TNI capabilities in Timor have been invaluable.

Major-General Peter Cosgrove, the Interfet leader, inadvertently referred to the ongoing reconnaissance recently when he said he was interested to read reports of what the TNI and militia groups were doing in remote and border areas. The covert surveillance gave the ADF the most comprehensive intelligence survey of the Indonesian military and paramilitary activity as the East Timor situation deteriorated mid-year. This has been uncomfortable knowledge in one respect. United States agencies have complained to the Australian Ambassador, Mr Andrew Peacock, about being denied access to Australian reports because they were known to be much more detailed than anything Washington had.

Mr Peacock declined to forward the reports because the names and operational deployment details would be compromised.

The US has its navy and the CIA watching the zone. Los Angeles class submarines are capable of positioning pods called Ivy Bells on underwater communication links. After a month or two they are retrieved and then decoded.

They are believed to have been listening to TNI traffic for as long as the SAS has been on the island