|Gatot Purwanto said Indonesian troops thought the journalists had filmed the invasion [AFP]
A former Indonesian army officer has admitted in a magazine interview that five foreign journalists were deliberately killed during Indonesia's 1975 invasion of East Timor.
Gatot Purwanto, a former Indonesian special forces commando and veteran of the Timor invasion, was quoted in weekly news magazine Tempo as saying that the reporters, known as the "Balibo Five", were shot because they were thought to have filmed the invasion.
Purwanto, who said he was a lieutenant in the special forces team that overran Balibo on October 16, 1975, but did not say who actually carried out the shootings.
|Purwanto said the journalists were killed to keep the East Timor invasion a secret [AFP]
The admission is the first by an Indonesian military official involved in the operation, adding to the controversy over how the two Australians, two Britons and one New Zealander died when Indonesian troops entered the town of Balibo.
The explosive claim is likely to strain diplomatic tensions between Indonesia and Australia over the killings.
In September Australian federal police launched a war crimes investigation into the deaths of Gary James Cunningham, Gregory John Shackleton, Malcolm Harvey Rennie, Anthony John Stewart and Brian Raymond Peters.
Indonesia's military has always maintained that the five were accidentally killed in crossfire.
In the Tempo interview Purwanto said the journalists were shot to keep Indonesia's military involvement in East Timor a secret two months before a full-blown invasion of the former Portuguese colony.
"The situation was difficult for us. If they were not executed, they could have testified that there was indeed an invasion by Indonesian troops," Purwanto said, adding that the bodies were burned to hide the evidence.
"If they were not executed, they could have testified that there was indeed an invasion by Indonesian troops"
He said there was "shooting from the direction of the house where they were hiding", prompting Indonesian soldiers to return fire.
"Maybe there [was] someone who wanted to rescue them. Our members immediately fired in that direction and the journalists were all dead."
Purwanto said that 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 but they were killed before Jakarta could respond.
In 2007, an Australian coroner found that the journalists were killed on Yosfiah's orders. He has denied it.
'Cost of war'
Commenting on Purwanto's comments, Sagom Tamboen, an Indonesian military spokesman, said the ex-officer's explanation made sense but the military did not admit to murdering the men, saying the deaths were "the cost of war".
|The five journalists were hiding in this house in Balibo town when they were killed [EPA]
"In a war, as was explained by him [Purwanto], that kind of situation is normal," he said.
The men's families have campaigned unsuccessfully for years for the Indonesian officers alleged to be responsible to face justice.
Indonesia withdrew from East Timor a decade ago after the territory voted overwhelmingly for independence in a UN-backed referendum.
The incident was recently turned into a feature film, "Balibo", directed by Robert Connolly and starring Anthony LaPaglia, which depicts Indonesian soldiers shooting and stabbing the unarmed journalists.
Indonesia banned the film last week, with the censorship board saying that the script was based on testimony of witnesses of "questionable nature".
Purwanto told Indonesian reporters after a private screening of the movie late on Monday that he stood by what he had told Tempo, adding that the movie was sensationalised and that only half the events in Balibo as depicted in the movie were accurate.
He then appeared to contradict his earlier interview by suggesting that the journalists' deaths were accidental.
"If you say that it was the Indonesian army who shot (the journalists), I can't accept that because there were also shots fired simultaneously by other armed members of the team [who were not Army]," he said.