Lindsay Murdoch in Darwin | August 21, 2007
AUSTRALIAN troops in East Timor stole flags of the deposed Fretilin party, tore them up and wiped their backsides with them, Fretilin claimed yesterday.
The incident has inflamed an already volatile situation in the country and it demonstrated the partisan nature of the Howard Government's intervention there, said Fretilin's vice-president, Arsenio Bano, and the nation's former prime minister, Mari Alkatiri.
A Defence spokeswoman in Canberra confirmed that a group of Australian soldiers took three Fretilin flags without permission on August 18.
But the spokeswoman would not comment on the claim that the flags were torn up and soldiers wiped their backsides with one as they drove off.
Mr Bano said soldiers grabbed the flags in two eastern villages where people were protesting against the formation of a government led by the former president, Xanana Gusmao.
More than 1000 Australian troops serving in East Timor's International Stabilisation Force and 1600 international police have been struggling to control violent protests by supporters of Fretilin, which had ruled the country since independence in 2002. Fretilin claims that Mr Gusmao's government is illegal.
"At Walili two Australian military vehicles full of soldiers tore up a Fretilin flag which had been raised at the roadside, wiped their backsides with it and drove off with the flag," Mr Bano said.
"In Alala village Australian troops tried to sever a Fretilin flag from its rope and then drove over it," he said.
Mr Bano said the incidents insulted all East Timorese because tens of thousands of Timorese martyrs died fighting under the flag during their 30-year struggle for independence.
He said the "cultural insensitivity and arrogance typifies Australian military operations in the Pacific region".
Mr Bano said the incidents could not be excused as the actions of misguided individual soldiers. "The soldiers take their cue from their officers who understand the true objectives of the Howard Government intervention in Timor Leste [East Timor], which has had one overriding aim - the removal of the democratically elected Fretilin government and its replacement with the illegitimate government of Jose Alexandre Gusmao," Mr Bano said.
The Defence spokeswoman said the actions of a small number of ISF soldiers involved in the taking of the flags were "highly inappropriate".
"The removal of any flag without permission is wrong and culturally insensitive," she said.
"The actions of the soldiers concerned have also let down their colleagues who are working extremely hard, day and night, to help the people of Timor Leste."
The spokeswoman said one of the flags was given back to villagers the day it was taken, with an apology.
Two other flags were being returned yesterday "with a sincere apology".
The ISF regretted the incident and was conducting an official investigation, she said.
Mr Alkatiri told the Agence France-Presse news agency the incidents were so serious that all of Australia's troops deployed in the country should go home. "It would be better for Australian troops to just return home if they cannot be neutral," said Mr Alkatiri, Fretilin's powerful secretary-general.
Mr Alkatiri said that while the Australians supposedly came to East Timor to help solve problems "they came to give their backing to one side to fight against the other".
Mr Alkatiri said the seizure of the flags was a provocation and accused the Australian forces of having intimidated Fretilin for some time.