Guest Writer – Colonel (Retd) Rob Hitchings
The call came mid-afternoon on September 6, 2000. A New Zealand SAS “tracking team” of 10 (attached to the New Zealand Battalion in Suai, East Timor), was doing its usual weapons practice at a makeshift range.
The team commander was told to report immediately to the United Nations Brigade HQ, for urgent orders.
The tracking team had been brought in from New Zealand a month earlier to help the battalion that was operating on the border with West Timor, Indonesia, as part of the UN intervention, following the 1999 independence referendum.
The SAS were there to help find militia elements that had been infiltrating across the border into East Timor (now Timor-Leste). The same militia that had been responsible for the death of New Zealand soldier Private Leonard Manning on July 24, 2000.
A Nepalese soldier, Private Devi Ram Jaisi, was also killed and three other Nepalese soldiers were wounded by the militia on August 10.
Militia groups were responsible for violence and intimidation in East Timor leading up to, and immediately after, the vote for independence on August 30, 1999. The results were announced five days later. The militia rejected the results and were violently opposed to the subsequent democratic processes taking place in East Timor, as well as the presence of UN forces.
The militia groups were East Timorese who maintained links with the Indonesian security forces and authorities in West Timor, and exercised significant control over the East Timorese refugees in camps there. They saw the UN as an international military force that had stolen East Timor from Indonesia, not an impartial humanitarian organisation.
New Zealand’s contribution to the UN peace-keeping operation comprised a composite battalion of about 800 (from New Zealand, Nepal, Fiji and Ireland). That battalion was based in the southern coastal town of Suai, supported by a Royal New Zealand Air Force air detachment of four ageing Iroquois helicopters.
Overseeing UN operations along the border was a “Sector West” Brigade headquarters of about 60 military staff, which co-ordinated activities of the Australian Battalion along the northern part of the border and the Kiwis to the south. The Brigade HQ was commanded by the experienced Australian, Brigadier Duncan Lewis.
In the days leading up to September 6, tension had been mounting in West Timor, including with the militia, those East Timorese refugees who wanted to be repatriated back to East Timor, and the international agencies there to support refugees.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Kupang, Kefa and Atambua had been subjected to demonstrations and attacks by the militia. Three UNHCR staff were attacked in Kefa in late August.
September 5 was also the first anniversary of a massacre of up to 200 innocent people in the church at Suai by Laksaur militias in East Timor. On that anniversary in Betun, West Timor, refugees sought vengeance and murdered Laksaur militia leader Olivio Mendonca Moruk. He was decapitated, his heart cut out, along with further mutilations.
Retribution continued on September 6 when three UNHCR staff in Atambua were killed by the Laksaur militia group. A number of others were wounded. A later UN investigation revealed that the militia mob broke into the UN compound and “shot the three UN workers to death, bundled the bodies into a car and then the car was set on fire”.
Conditions were deteriorating quickly across the border, and the lives of UN staff and local workers in Atambua were at significant risk.
In the Brigade HQ at Suai, snippets of information were being collected about what was happening across the border, 45km away to the northwest.
Brigadier Lewis tasked myself, as the Kiwi chief of staff to start planning the rescue of the 40-45 UN people held hostage in Atambua.
The most obvious military assets to use were the Australians at Fort Balibo, just across the border from Atambua; 20km away and easily reached by the modern and sophisticated Black Hawk helicopters available to the special forces squadron of the Aussie Battalion.
They also had Australian Light Armoured Vehicles (ASLAV) that could be used as a backup, or a reserve force, should anything go wrong with a helicopter rescue.
But, as is the geo-political nature of individual national commitments to international UN operations, the Australian Government only allowed its military commitment to the UN to operate within the borders of East Timor. No Australian Defence Force (ADF) assets could be used to cross the border for any part of the rescue.
Brigadier Lewis asked for Australian forces to be used but authorisation was only to come later the next day. Disappointed that modern military equipment and military forces closer to the hostage scene could not be used, but with pragmatic leadership instincts and recognising the urgency of the situation, Lewis called upon the Kiwis of his brigade to tackle the risky rescue.
In optimistic anticipation of New Zealand Government approval, relevant Kiwi forces (the tracking team, the three RNZAF helicopters and Acting Battalion Commander Major Lyndon Blanchard) were told to prepare for the rescue.
There was then a rapid sequence of events to get New Zealand Government approval. Lewis contacted the senior New Zealand National Officer in East Timor, Brigadier Lou Gardiner, in the capital Dili, who then talked with the Joint Commander of the East Timor deployment based in Wellington, Brigadier Jerry Mateparae. Mateparae then spoke with Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Carey Adamson, who sought approval from Minister of Defence Mark Burton, who secured permission from Prime Minister Helen Clark.
The mission was on.
Approvals took about two hours to achieve; something extraordinary in the usually hierarchical political-military environment.
Adamson simply said: “Go ahead, that is what we are there for.”
Planning for the rescue was well under way by 3pm at the Brigade HQ, when Captain Steve Guiney, the SAS tracking team commander, arrived from range practice.
The most senior “tracker”, Neville Radford, was already at Brigade HQ when Guiney arrived, uncertain about what was actually happening in Atambua.
“I got in and Neville Radford had already been briefed on the situation,” Guiney said.
“It was clear someone was likely to be going over to get the UN staff.
“But I could not work out why the Indons [Indonesians], who were assuring us the remaining staff were safe and secure, did not drive them to the border themselves. It seemed odd, unsettling even.”
Disconcerting information on what was unfolding at Atambua was arriving, too. An Australian staff officer on the Brigade HQ, who spoke Bahasa Indonesian, was speaking directly with an Indonesian Army (TNI) officer based in Atambua and relaying information about where the hostages were and how many there were. Similarly, Lewis, also a Bahasa speaker, was talking to his TNI counterpart in West Timor. Some hostages were able to communicate with the UN HQ in Dili, where an Australian operations officer, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Webb, absorbed information and passed it on to Sector West.
What was obvious to me as chief of staff, to the planners, and those about to conduct the mission was that the situation in Atambua was far from clear.
We knew roughly how many were to be collected but not their precise physical state nor the militia state of mind at that point, nor the attitude of the local TNI. We also needed to get airspace clearance from Indonesia.
Blanchard and his battalion staff planned to start the rescue on the morning of September 6.
“The situation in Atambua appeared calm but tense and the UN staff were incredibly fearful of immediate future attacks on them,” Blanchard said.
The SAS tracking team received a hurried briefing from Guiney, as they were driving to the helicopters.
Going into the unknown, Guiney ordered they go fully combat-kitted with all gear, including rocket launchers.
At 5.02pm the rescue started, with the liftoff of the three Iroquois from Suai, under the command of Squadron Leader Mark Cook. They carried the 10-strong tracking team.
Blanchard, flying separately in an Australian Kiowa, light observation helicopter, would provide a communications re-transmission facility from the ground rescue forces to the HQs monitoring the operation, plus overall command of the rescue. Being in an Australian helicopter, he would not cross the border.
Cook recalled that despite being prepared, the team did not really know where they were going.
“We had no idea what the payload would be and only started to get information halfway there. The numbers for collection changed about three times.”
As they closed in on Atambua, concerns drifted through the minds of those about to take part in the rescue. What to do if the helicopters broke down? What if the militia launched a counter-attack against the small tracking team? Would they be able to get all the hostages out on the three helicopters available? And before last light? What if they have to fight their way on foot back to the border?
Looking back, Blanchard said the ground forces had to pretty much look after themselves in the short-term if things went pear-shaped.
At 5.17pm the rescue team crossed the border into Indonesian airspace and West Timor.
In the spirit of Anzac mateship, Commanding Officer of the Australian Battalion Lieutenant Colonel Mick Moon advised Blanchard that in the event of a life-threatening emergency on the ground in Atambua then he would be ready to send in one of his companies of mechanised infantry (in ASLAVs with 25mm cannons) to help.
That simple gesture highlighted the “will do” attitude of the Aussies, and the enormously strong relationship built between the Australian 6 RAR Battalion and the Kiwis.
Cook identified a clear area to land at Atambua near the UNHCR compound. Two Iroquois landed, while the third loitered in “overwatch”. The tracking team and their gear were quickly unloaded. Into the unknown. The helicopters then left to join the overwatch and later refuel rather than remain at risk on the ground.
On landing, the SAS team found that the TNI had set up a small perimeter where the UN staff and workers were being held. Some militia mingled with the crowds, observing.
Aiming not to stoke tensions, Guiney instructed his team to place their weapons to their sides, an unthreatening posture – but at full alert in case of aggression. The SAS formed a triangular defence.
Guiney approached a knot of TNI officers.
“The TNI generals/brass seemed to be preoccupied with something as I walked over to them in the compound,” Guiney said.
“It took me a couple of attempts to get their attention. They were polite but in deep conversation, I suspect about the situation and how bad it looked in the ‘world’s eye’. I suspect the TNI brass on the ground were getting some heat from above.”
The Indonesian officers were not angry with the Kiwis but were very stressed with the general situation and the uncertainty of militia actions.
Guiney insisted on seeing the hostages and discovered some walking wounded.
“They were petrified and still in shock at the loss of their colleagues.”
With the help of cautious Indonesian soldiers, the SAS assembled the hostages into helicopter “packets” ready for loading. One worker was badly wounded.
A pre-determined codeword was relayed back to the helicopters to return for extraction.
The helicopters returned, evacuating 43 hostages in two “taps”, or lifts, with one tracking team member as security in each helicopter.
Just before 6pm all personnel, including the trackers were heading back to Fort Balibo and the Australian casualty evacuation point. By last light all were safely back on the East Timor side of the border.
“It was a long 40 minutes on the ground waiting for those helicopters to come back,” Guiney said, “and we were not confident they were coming back.
“But in the end, they did, so we shook hands with the TNI and returned.”
On return to Suai the rescue force was met by Brigadier Duncan Lewis who congratulated them on a job well done.
As the deployment area was an alcohol-dry mission, Lewis presented them with an uncharacteristic tray of Coca-Cola and chocolate bars.
The following day the TNI delivered the bodies of the three UN staff, plus another 49 other UN staff and NGOs by road to the border with the Australians.
The courage and high standards shown by New Zealand personnel involved in the operation were highly praised. The acting Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Lieutenant General Mueller, paid tribute to “the rapid response and concise execution of this sensitive and difficult task”.
Forty-three hostages were rescued by the small detachment of Kiwi Defence Force members, flown in on the ageing but trusty Iroquois.
It was hastily planned, executed against the odds, literally into enemy territory (they had no real out if the Iroquois had broken down or the SAS were captured), with the ADF unable to do it, yet closer and better equipped; approved at the highest level in next to no time and with typically the NZ “give it a go” approach.
Aussie Battalion Commander Mick Moon sent a message following the successful rescue: “From CO and all ranks of AUSBATT [Australian Battalion] to all NZ pers[onnel], congrats and bloody well done on Evac Op Heliwan. Have processed some rattled but very grateful Evacuees.”
Acknowledgements: NZDF imagery, Ron Crosby SAS: The First 50 Years, Steve Guiney, Mark Cook (RNZAF, retired), Lyndon Blanchard (NZ Army, retired), Mark Webb (ADF Colonel, retired), John Crawford and Glyn Harper Operation East Timor, Mick Moon (ADF Brigadier, retired).
This story was first published by stuff.co.nz on 6 September 2020 and is reproduced here with permission of the author.
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