DILI (AFP) – East Timor police have declared war on mysterious "ninjas" accused of murder and subversion in a new twist to the young country's struggle to establish security.
The latest whispers of ninjas to transfix the nation emerged after the murders of a 15-year-old girl in the western district of Bobonaro on December 22 and a baby boy in Covalima, also in the west, on January 19.
Police chief Longuinhos Monteiro donned full military gear to lead the operation, telling reporters that "any ninjas who want to take us on, your final stop will be Santa Cruz cemetery".
But many observers dismiss the ninja threat as a political game and suggest the authorities are using techniques of social control learned from the Indonesian army's brutal 24-year occupation.
"It?s a method used by the Indonesian military to limit the movement of the citizens," said Rogerio Viegas Vicente, programme manager for leading TimoreseHAK Association.
Kidnappings and disappearances were commonplace during the 1975-99 occupation, in which more than 100,000 people died, and the East Timorese remain edgy when it comes to rumours of shadowy assassins.
Indonesian death squads referred to as ninjas terrorised villagers and reports of masked ninjas committing crimes have persisted since formal independence in 2002.
In 2008, residents of Dili and the northern coastal district of Liquica reported that ninjas were trying to kidnap their children.
The Australian government's travel guidance advises citizens to avoid "martial arts groups" in-- an apparent reference to youth gangs that have fought street battles in recent years.
But human rights researchers who have investigated the murders say the ninjas being hunted by the police in Bobonaro and Covalima do not exist.
"They're ordinary crimes that happened, the same as in other districts," Vicente told AFP.
Police launched a full-scale anti-ninja operation on January 22 and recently extended it for six months with support from the armed forces.
Twenty members of dissident political group CPD-RDTL and underground political organisation Bua-Malus were arrested on February 5 on suspicion of involvement in "ninja" activities.
Police released all but two, who were detained in relation to the killing of the girl in Bobonaro.claimed that CPD-RDTL and Bua-Malus were attempting to launch a coup against the state.
But HAK says the girl's murder was the result of a private dispute fuelled by political rivalry. Members of CPD-RDTL, meanwhile, have levelled a string of allegations ofagainst the police.
The country's rights ombudsman is now investigating the police for what independent analysts said was an over-the-top response to a low-level political feud.
"CPD-RDTL and Bua-Malus are extensions of political interests in East Timor," said Edward Rees, a senior adviser to humanitarian group the Peace Dividend Trust.
"While political competition is healthy, imposing heavy-handed police operations is more than what is really necessary for managing criminal acts mixed with political activism."
An investigation by HAK researchers found evidence of police abuses including "ramming with rifle butts, kicking, beating with batons, cutting people?s hair with a knife, threatening their life and speaking sharply to people" who would not admit to being ninjas.
HAK also found that police officers received "arbitrary orders or plans from their superior to detain individuals identified as CPD-RDTL members".
As a result, the police operation has created more insecurity than the alleged ninjas, Vicente said.
This does not augur well for a force that has been mentored by the United Nations and is starting to take more direct responsibility for security as the UN presence in East Timor winds down.
Speaking at a news conference, police chief Monteiro denied the anti-ninja operation had a political motive.
"What kind of politics do the police carry out? The politics of the police is to maintain security and public order," he said.