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Rebel ambush kills 17 Indonesian police

May 31, 1997

DILI, Indonesia (AP) _ Separatist rebels bombed a police truck with grenades Saturday, killing 17 officers during one of the worst outbreaks of violence in years in the disputed Indonesian territory of East Timor.

The deaths raised to 41 the number of people killed in rebel attacks in the past week in East Timor. Across Indonesia, more than 300 people died during a month of violence preceding Thursday’s parliamentary election.

The grenades struck a truck on a highway outside the town of Baucau, 90 miles east of the provincial capital, Dili. Twelve officers were killed at the scene and five others died en route to Dili. Three other officers were hospitalized.

Police said about 10 rebels fled into nearby hills.

The attack coincided with the formal change of army commanders in East Timor, which Indonesia invaded in 1975 and annexed the following year. The United Nations does not recognize the annexation.

Col. Mahidin Simbolon surrendered his command in a ceremony in Dili at the end of a two-year tour of duty. Before his appointment in May 1995, Simbolon played a major role in capturing Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao, now serving a 20-year prison term in Jakarta.

Simbolon’s successor, Col. Slamet Sidabutur, is due to arrive in East Timor in a few weeks.

Indonesia’s ruling party won a landslide victory in Thursday’s vote, which human rights activists say was plagued by widespread fraud and manipulation.

Election monitors from the Bangkok-based Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development accused the military of taking an active role in the poll and creating ``an atmosphere of fear″ at polling stations.

The 31-year-old government of President Suharto has said a strong military presence was needed to maintain order and public safety.

However, the monitoring team’s leader, Evelyn Balais Serrano, said armed soldiers were in polling booths ``involved in the process of reading ballots.″

The Asian Forum team and other groups have said some voters cast multiple ballots and that vote-counting had not been done openly.

The U.S. State Department has called on Indonesian authorities to investigate reported election abuses.

Rob Wesley-Smith, an Australia-based spokesman for East Timor’s resistance movement, said that the rebel attacks earlier in the week were meant to disrupt the election.

Four separate incidents on Wednesday killed as many as 22 people, according to reports from police and the Roman Catholic church.

Police said Saturday the army captured 30 rebels accused of taking part in the pre-election attacks.

``We are still looking for more of them,″ said East Timor police chief Col. Jusuf Mucharam.

Update hourly