Human Rights Watch today urged all parties to the conflict in East Timor to respect humanitarian law after reported abuses by both the Indonesian army and East Timorese independence supporters near the town of Alas, Manufahi district, East Timor.

Major military operations have been underway in the area since early November after armed guerrillas executed three suspected intelligence agents on October 31 and fatally wounded a fourth. Villagers, apparently with some guerrilla support, then attacked a subdistrict military command post on November 9, killing three soldiers and taking thirteen others into custody.

Two men, both East Timorese, remain in captivity; the others were released. Reports of dozens of deaths of civilians in the Manufahi area remain unconfirmed, although abuses have clearly taken place. A local village headman and his son from the village that launched the attack on the military post were killed by the army under circumstances which remain unclear.

Witnesses report that the Alas area is virtually under siege, with people being dragged from their homes in the middle of the night as the army hunts for those responsible for the two attacks. Indonesian authorities have acknowledged arresting at least nine people, including the man regarded as the mastermind of the October executions, but many more are reported to have been taken into custody for interrogation.

Local human rights organizations said they had been denied access to the area. Troop reinforcements were reportedly being sent to the area, and soldiers were reported to be severely restricting freedom of movement of residents. Over 100 people had sought refuge from the military operations in churches and other sites.

"Summary executions by guerrillas clearly violate international humanitarian law, the so-called 'laws of war'," said Sidney Jones, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "Soldiers captured by the other side in an armed conflict have human rights like anyone else."

Jones said, however, that there is now real concern for civilians in the Alas area. "Whenever counterinsurgency operations have been mounted in response to attacks in which soldiers have died, it's the civilians who get hurt," she said. "The military has used torture and arbitrary arrest before to pry information out of a terrified population, and it appears to be doing so again."

Human Rights Watch called on the army to allow local human rights investigators into the area to examine possible human rights violations by all sides. Investigators need to determine the circumstances under which the deaths took place, including whether soldiers shot at unarmed civilians or whether they returned fire in the context of an armed engagement.

The trouble in Manufahi district began on October 31 in the transmigration site of Weberek, about thirty kilometers from Alas village. A group of students were reportedly holding a meeting there to discuss the need for a referendum to show support for East Timor's independence. Some members of the guerrilla organization, Falintil, were reportedly present, as were four men whom the students did not recognize. The four were immediately suspected of being intelligence agents and, indeed, three of them turned out to be soldiers. They were surrounded, tied up, and taken away by the Falintil members, according to local sources. Three, Sgt. Abdul Latief, Sgt. Zainuddin, and a civilian, Ir. Muhammad Slamet Imam Prabowo SE, were found stabbed to death near the Weberek river. A fourth, Private Siswanto, managed to escape and made his way back to the subdistrict military command in Alas; he later died of multiple stab wounds.

Following the Weberek incident, the military reportedly began a massive hunt for the killers, and many civilians fled their homes, worried about reprisals. Some of the transmigrants from Java and Bali who lived in Weberek asked to be sent back to their place of origin, as they felt themselves to be in danger from both sides. Some local East Timorese transmigrants who had moved to Weberek from other parts of the territory also asked to be sent home. There are unconfirmed reports that the army used masked men, known as ninjas, to terrorize the local population, a tactic commonly used in East Timor in the early and mid-1990s.

On November 9, an armed group of some fifty to eighty men, reportedly including some Falintil guerrillas but mostly villagers from around the village of Taitudak, mounted an attack on the subdistrict military command in Alas, apparently to get Private Siswanto, the man who had escaped from Weberek.

The attackers shot and killed three soldiers (Privates Calistro Hornay and E. Bodi da Costa, both East Timorese, and Sgt. Petrus Bere, origin unclear) and escaped with virtually the entire stock of firearms of the command, over thirty rifles. They also took thirteen soldiers hostage, all but two of whom were released the next day. The two, who remain in guerrilla custody, are also East Timorese, Joao Baptista and Manuel do Santos. Indonesian newspapers reported that the International Committee of the Red Cross is trying to negotiate their release.

Military operations in the Alas area intensified after the November 9 attack, and at least two people were killed by the military last week: Vicente, the village head of Taitudak, and his son. The army maintains they were killed in a shoot-out, but there have been no independent reports. Human rights organizations say that the military has mobilized ten truckloads of troops from each district to provide reinforcements for the subdistrict command.