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Digging Up The Past To Solve Balibo Killings

Digging Up The Past In Bid To Solve Balibo Killings

BALIBO, East Timor: Forensic investigators are looking for the remains of five Western journalists murdered here 25 years ago during Indonesia's occupation of East Timor.

Darwin police investigator Senior Constable Kym Chilton is leading a team of four in the painstaking task of looking for proof that the five men died in this strategic border town while attempting to cover the Indonesian attack on October 16, 1975.

The five who died in Balibo were reporter Greg Shackleton, 27, and soundman Tony Stewart, 21, both of Australia; British reporter Malcolm Rennie, 28, and British cameraman Brian Peters, 29; and New Zealand cameraman Gary Cunningham.

The circumstances of their deaths have created controversy ever since.

A senior Indonesian minister under the Habibie government, Yunus Yosfiah, who led the attack on Balibo as a young Indonesian commander, stands accused of being responsible for the deaths of the Balibo five.

Documents recently released from Australian archives show that Australia knew of the planned attack but did not warn its citizens.

The forensic team's evidence will form part of an investigation by the UN transitional administration in East Timor and could lead to charges being laid against senior members of the Indonesian military.

The UN is administering East Timor after a vote for independence from Indonesia last year.

Senior Constable Chilton is relying on the evidence of East Timorese witnesses who allege the reporters were killed by Indonesian forces and their bodies burnt.

He is working on the possibility that their remains were dumped at the back of a house in Balibo, where the investigators are now working.

"What we are trying to do is just confirm witness stories," he said.

"At this stage what we are looking for is possible minute remains, like bone particles. The best outcome is if they find evidence that they died there but we're also just looking for evidence that they were here."

The team is sifting carefully through soil covering an area of five metres by 20 metres and digging to a depth of up to 30 centimetres.

The house, neighboring one in which Mr Shackleton was famously filmed painting the Australian flag on the wall, is now abandoned.

An old wreath of bougainvillea resting against the wall of a room pays tribute in the East Timorese language of Tetum to "the five murdered Australian journalists".

According to Senior Constable Chilton, it would not be hard to find a 25-year-old skeleton if the killers had not tried to destroy the evidence.

Identifying any remains is also a difficult task: they must first be confirmed as human bones and then the DNA must be matched up with several relatives' DNA.

There is a possibility that the bodies were taken to Jakarta, where a memorial service was later held for the five.

UN investigator Jim Osborne said it would be three to six months before he could submit a file to the UN general prosecutor.

Asked about the chances of bringing charges against the suspected killers, Mr Osborne said: "Very remote."

+++niuswire

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