Gatot Purwanto, pictured. Photo / AP EXPAND

Gatot Purwanto, pictured. Photo / AP

A former Indonesian army colonel has told a magazine publication that soldiers deliberately killed five Western journalists in East Timor in 1975, contradicting his government's official line that they accidentally died in a crossfire.

Gatot Purwanto told weekly Tempomagazine, he was a lieutenant in the special forces team that overran Balibo on 16 October 1975.

Asked if soldiers deliberately killed a New Zealand cameraman and two Australian and two Briton reporters, Purwanto said "yes".

The victims, who have become known as the Balibo Five, were shot to keep secret Indonesia's military involvement two months before a full-blown invasion, he said.

"If they had been left alive, they would say it was an Indonesian invasion," Purwanto said.

"If we let them go there would be evidence."

He said the bodies were burned to hide the evidence.

"To make it easier we tried to make them disappear," he said.

"We would say that we didn't know anything."

The five killed were New Zealander Gary Cunningham, 27; Australians Gregory Shackleton, 29, and Tony Stewart, 21; and Britons Malcolm Rennie, 28, and Brian Peters, 29.

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 foreigners when they were killed, Purwanto said.

Yosfiah has often been accused of ordering the killings.

But soldiers surrounding the house where the five were hiding, opened fire before Jakarta responded, after they were "provoked" by gunfire from the journalists' direction, Purwanto said.

Neither Yosfiah nor Purwanto, who now runs a security firm, could be contacted on Monday.

Indonesian military spokesman Rear Marshal Sagom Tamboen said the East Timor conflict was part of history and both Indonesia and East Timor were committed to living in harmony in the future.

"Everyone may have a different perception of what Purwanto said ... but we are sure it will not affect the good ties between Indonesia, East Timor and Australia," Tamboen said.