Australian Special Air Service
(SASR) troopers survey East Timor from helicopter.
Note radiotelephone operator (RTO) to left (with
Oakley goggles) and rifleman with M4 to the right.
misses death by millimetres in E Timor - October
forces scouted island from April - October
Special Operations in East
Timor - Operation Stabilise
For the past 500 years right up to the 1970s,
East Timor was largely a Portuguese Colony. Apart
from the odd takeover from the Dutch, British
and Japanese, the Portuguese have always held
the island till the 1970s when a military coup
in Portugal began to end it all. Realising the
vast amounts of money and effort spent trying
to hold onto its many colonies throughout the
world, Portugal decided to let go of their colonies.
With the departure of their Portuguese rulers
in 1975, the people of East Timor decided to vote
on whether to have independence or be part of
Indonesia. The election fell in favour to independence,
which was lead by the Marxist Fretilin party.
With the Cold War in full swing, the President
of Indonesia at the time, President Suharto, saw
the creation of a Marxist state in his back yard
and launched an invasion on East Timor on 7 Dec
1975. Although East Timor was no threat to Indonesia,
it was a good opportunity to unite the entire
Indonesian Island chain.
Fretilin's armed wing Falintil was no match for
the invading army. For the next 25 years, Falintil
have waged a guerilla war against the Indonesian
army, lead by Xanana Gusmao. The Indonesians were
losing the guerilla war as it tried to destroy
the resistance movement. In the process, they
murdered and tortured civilians who were sympathetic
towards Falintil or who were politically active
in the independence movement.
It wasn't until the 1990s when support for the
independence movement was grew in the Western
world. Lead by the brutal massacre of civilians
by the Indonesian military during a burial, support
grew strong and calls for Indonesia to withdraw
from East Timor unfortunately fell on deaf ears.
At that time Indonesia was growing in economic
stature, as it became one of the boom economies
of Asia. But as the Asian Economic Crisis hit
in late 1997, things began to look sour for Indonesia.
With a struggling currency and a change of government,
Indonesia needed financial assistance from the
west. International pressure forced Indonesia
to conduct a vote for independence for East Timor
to be overseen by the UN.
With the prospect of losing the pro-Indonesian
vote, the Indonesian military raised local militias
who were instructed to terrorise independence
voters in order to destabilise the upcoming vote.
Nevertheless on polling day, 78.5 % voted for
With this result, the militias along with the
Indonesian military then embarked on a campaign
of looting and destruction. Their aim was to leave
nothing for the Timorese to rebuild a new nation
International coverage of the election and the
subsequent violence and withdrawal of the UN lead
to mounting pressure to send in an International
Force to stop the violence. Lead by Australia,
a multinational force known as INTERFET (International
Force East Timor) was formed. As dawn broke on
the 20 Sept 1999, Operation Stabilise was to commence.
Special Forces Involvement
Whilst not officially in East Timor, special
forces from Australia, New Zealand and the UK
have played a major role from the start of Operation
Stabilise. Special forces units involved in Operation
Stabilise include -
From Day One, members of the Australian and New
Zealand Special Air Special Regiment were the
first to arrive in East Timor, securing the main
airport in Dili for the main force to arrive.
As they disembarked from their C-130H, SAS troopers
immediately fanned out into the scrub, taking
up fire positions. During this time they met no
resistance from the Indonesian Marines and Air
Force Police who were tasked to secure the airport.
Once the airport was secured the combined Australian,
New Zealand and British Special Forces Group moved
into Dili, securing Dili's Port. During that time,
members of the NZ SAS disarmed one member of the
Day Two saw the Australian SAS escort a UN convoy
to the jungle town of Dare. As they arrived they
were met with a joyous welcome from the refugees
Back in Dili, the Special Forces Group along
with the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment
(Parachute) were involved in the rescue of two
journalists who were attacked by East Timorese
members of the Indonesian Military (TNI). Facing
the loss of their nation breaking away with Indonesia,
the Timorese members of the TNI vented their anger
towards the journalists.
By the end of the first week of the operation,
much of Dili had been secured. However the rest
of the country had yet been secured, in particular
the western regions along the border. Intelligence
reports received showed that armed militia were
terrorising the people in the township of Come.
A combined special ops force moved in by Blackhawks
on last night. Utilising the element of surprise
and sophisticated night vision equipment, 24 armed
militia were captured without a shot fired.
A week later the Special Forces group was involved
with escorting more than 115 militia back to West
Timor border. Earlier that day, an armoured column
comprising of a company of Gurkhas and the 2nd
Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment entered the
town of Suai, capturing 115 militia as they tried
to flee the town. The Special Forces group, mounted
in Land Rovers was tasked to escort the captured
militia back to the West Timor border. As they
headed back from the border, the column was ambushed
by a large group of Militia armed with a mixture
of weapons including SKS, G-3 and Indonesian FNC
Assault Rifles. Two Australian SAS troopers were
wounded. One took a round through the neck, the
other through his leg and wrist. Immediately the
SF group initiated their counter ambush drills,
killing two enemy and capturing nine.
Three days later an SAS observation post near
the border was attacked. During the firefight,
one militia was killed and several others wounded.
Ten days later after the incident in Suai, an
Australian SAS patrol was contacted by a group
of 20 militia near the border. The patrol immediately
broke contact and rapidly made their way to the
emergency LZ. As they moved, the militia continued
to chase them up. Two Blackhawks, one that contained
a SAS ready reaction team assisted in the hot
extraction. Three militia were killed and three
more wounded in the half and hour firefight.
In late October, INTERFET launched their last
operation to occupy the last unsecured area of
East Timor, the Oecussi enclave. As members of
the 5th/7th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment
conducted their amphibious landing on the enclave,
Special Forces light teams in Blackhawks provided
top cover fire support for the landing. As the
first wave of infantry landed, they were met on
the beach by SAS recon teams that have been in
the enclave weeks before the landing, observing
the enemy. The operation netted forty-captured
militia without a shot fired.
Apart from the above operations, the Special
Forces group provided personal protection to various
VIPs, notably to the East Timorese independence
leader Xanana Gusmao as he returned to East Timor.
Along with this, members of the Special Forces
group have been actively liaising with Falintil
since Day Two, providing intelligence on militia
activity. Members of the 4th Battalion, Royal
Australian Regiment (Commando) also provided security
for the large media contingent operating in East
By early November, much of East Timor has been
relatively quiet. It is expected that a new United
Nations force will take over the role of INTERFET
in February 2000. For almost 30 years now, both
the Australian and NZ SAS, have relatively been
quiet operationally apart from the odd peacekeeping
mission. Operation Stabilise has brought them
back into the picture and from the clear success
of the operation, it has proven that they have
still have what it takes even after 30 years.