Starey, the Department's current Liaison Officer in Darwin, accompanied RAAF flight (ICRC supplies) to Dili on 17 October, returning the same day. He was authorised to carry out such consular functions as might have proved necessary in the light of the stepped up fighting in Portuguese Timor. His visit has not yet been publicly announced.
Following is his report:
My visit to Dili on 17 October passed without attracting attention. It proved possible to spend over an hour in Dili itself as there were no formalities at the airport. I travelled in a Red Cross vehicle from the airport to ICRC headquarters and return.
- Dili was very still on 17 October. There was virtually no traffic, (only army jeeps) and very few pedestrians.If I had had the time, I am sure that I could have walked unchallenged all over the town. My time was in fact spent in the privileged section of Dili, where the villas were deserted. The airport reception for the Hercules was large and friendly. (No plane of this size had previously touched down at Dili.) The crowd, about half of whom were in some sort of uniform, simply gaped.
- There was no sign of anti-Australian sentiment. In view of the unstructured nature of my visit, I took care not to make my presence known to Fretilin. This required a measure of finesse at both the ICRC headquarters, where the Military Commander Lobato1 paid a call, and on return to the airport, where President Amaral was holding court. Other members of the visiting party, notably Pasquier (ICRC) and Gp. Capt. Hitchens (RAAF), conversed with Lobato and Amaral.
- From immediately related accounts of conversations by Pasquier and Hitchens, together with an exchange I had with Dunn (ACFOA), at the airport, I report the following:
- Fretilin, as of 17 October, conceded the loss of Batugade, Balibo and Maliana.
- These losses, and the conviction that Indonesian forces were involved in the campaign, had dismayed the Fretilin leadership, particularly in terms of the defence of Dili. An immediate reaction had been to send 500 elite troops to the disputed area, which, taken together with previous similar reinforcing actions, left Dili without adequate defences.
- The Fretilin leadership was now thinking in terms of a taking to the hills type of operation. They were confident that this could be sustained over a long period, albeit with heavy losses on both sides.
- President Amaral, according to both Pasquier and Dunn, claims to have sent a message to President Suharto asking for talks. I can see no reason for Amaral having said this if it were not true. (In this connection Pasquier is a completely reliable witness.) Amaral is reported by both as stating that a protracted conflict would necessarily involve huge loss of life, and that this must be averted. The presence of Dunn in Timor at this point adds a further complication to the issue. He talked of remaining there virtually come what may. Last night, I was informed by Carvalho (Portuguese Mission, Darwin) that Dunn and his ACFOA colleagues visitedAtauro on 19 October.
- As for the five Australian T.V journalists missing in the Balibo area, the present indications are not good. Fretilin radio communications between Dili and Balibo, plus the accounts of seven Fretilin soldiers who deserted the front for Dili, suggest that the five journalists may have been trapped in a house struck by mortar or artillery fire. While this is less than conclusive evidence, we must face the fact that all contact with them has been lost, as least on the Fretilin side.
[NAA: Al838, 3038/13/10/1, i]