Australia court urges Indonesia war crimes charges

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CANBERRA, Nov 16 (Reuters) A coroner today urged the Australian government to seek war crimes charges against former Indonesian military officers over the 1975 killing of five Australian newsmen during Indonesia's invasion of East Timor.

New South Wales state deputy coroner Dorelle Pinch ruled the five Australians, known as the Balibo five, were deliberately tracked and killed by Indonesian forces who were invading Balibo in October 1975 ahead of a full invasion of East Timor.

''The journalists were not incidental casualties in the fighting, they were captured, then deliberately killed despite protesting their status,'' Pinch ruled today.

Her finding is at odds with Indonesia's long-held version that the newsmen were killed in crossfire during a firefight at Balibo in the former Portuguese colony of East Timor.

Pinch named former Indonesian Special Forces captain Yunus Yosfiah, a retired general and now a senior Indonesian lawmaker, for ordering the killings to stop any reports that special forces were involved in the attack on Balibo.

She also said there was strong circumstantial evidence that the orders to kill the newsmen came from the head of the Indonesian special forces, Major-General Benny Murdani.

Indonesia said the coroner's finding would not change its position.

''The coroner's court has a very limited jurisdiction and its decision won't change our stance about what happened,'' foreign ministry spokesman Kristiarto Legowa told a news conference. ''It won't change our position that it is a closed case.'' In March, Pinch issued a warrant for Yunus's arrest after he refused to come to Australia to give evidence in the case.

At the time, Yunus said he had no intention of answering an Australian summons and called his accusers liars.

TENSION The deaths of the Balibo five -- Greg Shackleton, Tony Stewart, Gary Cunningham, Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie -- have been a long-running source of tension between Australia and Indonesia, with family members accusing both countries of a cover up.

Pinch said she would now ask the Australian government to consider pursuing war crimes against those involved.

''I have formed the view after applying the requisite evidentiary tests, that war crimes may have been committed and I intend to refer the matter to the Commonwealth attorney-general,'' she said in her judgement.

Her finding ends a 30-year campaign from relatives of the dead journalists and cameramen, who believed the men were deliberately killed.

''Proper respect has now been paid to these Australian citizens who have been brushed aside,'' Shackleton's widow Shirley Shackleton told reporters outside the court.

''I'm in shock, I never thought this moment would come,'' said Maureen Tolfree, the sister of Brian Peters.

Pinch ruled there was no evidence to support claims the Australian government had advance notice of Indonesia's plan to invade East Timor after the withdrawal of the former Portuguese rulers of the territory.

The invasion led to 24 years of Indonesian control of East Timor, a country of about 920,000 people which voted in 1999 to break free of Indonesian rule and which gained full independence in 2002.

She also recommended Australian and Indonesian authorities work together to find the remains of the five men and return them to Australia for burial.

REUTERS SG RK1130

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