A former Indonesian army colonel has told a magazine that soldiers deliberately killed five Western journalists in East Timor in 1975 _ contradicting the government's longstanding assertion that the deaths were accidental.
The explosive claim in the weekly Tempo magazine, published Monday, further fueled tensions between Indonesia and Australia created in September when Australian federal police launched a war crimes investigation into the deaths in the East Timorese border town of Balibo in the weeks before Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony.
It comes amid renewed public interest in the case spurred by the release this year of the Australian movie "Balibo," which depicts the events that lead to the journalists' deaths. The film was banned in Indonesia.
Gatot Purwanto told Tempo he was a lieutenant in the special forces team that overran Balibo on Oct. 16, 1975. The journalists, who have become known as the Balibo Five, were shot to keep secret the Indonesian military's presence in East Timor two months before a full-blown invasion, he said.
Tempo quoted Purwanto as saying that soldiers decided to kill the reporters _ two Australians, two Britons and a New Zealander _ to prevent them from reporting that Indonesia was preparing to invade the breakaway territory.
"If they had been left alive, they would say it was an Indonesian invasion," Purwanto said.
Purwanto, who now runs a security firm, said the bodies were burned to hide the evidence.
Yunus Yosfiah, who was then an army captain and later a government minister, had been waiting for instructions from Jakarta on what to do with the reporters when they were killed, Purwanto said. In 2007, an Australian coroner found that the journalists were killed on Yosfiah's orders. He has denied it and could not be contacted for comment on Purwanto's claims.
Late Monday, after a private screening of the movie, Purwanto gave Indonesian reporters a slightly different version of events _ that the journalists may have been shot by plainclothes, pro-Jakarta militia who accompanied the soldiers during an attack on Balibo's Fretilin party independence fighters.
"I am not defending myself, but I can say that the shooting of the reporters was not entirely done by Indonesian soldiers," he said.
Shirley Shackleton, the widow of Greg Shackleton, one of the Australians killed, welcomed Purwanto's interview _ the first senior Indonesian soldier to contradict the official version that the reporters were caught in the middle of a gunbattle and accidentally shot.
"It is a milestone. It's another nail in the coffin of lies," she told Australia's Fairfax Radio Network on Tuesday.
New Zealand Foreign Minister Murray McCully said Tuesday that he recently told his Indonesian counterpart, Marty Natalegawa, that his government was "deeply interested" in the case and that the Australian police investigation should be allowed to take its course.
The "Balibo" movie depicts Indonesian soldiers shooting and stabbing the unarmed journalists. Indonesia's censorship board said the script was based on testimony of witnesses of "questionable nature." Purwanto himself said the movie was sensationalized and that only half the events depicted in Balibo were accurate.
Associated Press writers Ali Kotarumalos and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.