Balaclava-clad footsoldiers 'terrifying'

By James Ihaka

A woman told last night how an alleged activist cell tried to recruit her by bombarding her with emails and phone calls urging her to back their cause.

The woman, who did not want to be named, told the Herald she thought she was going to a Maori genealogy wananga (place of learning) in Ruatoki, about 15km inland from Whakatane, but was terrified after meeting balaclava-wearing footsoldiers.

"I honestly thought it was a whanau thing so I asked which family they belonged to, but they wouldn't say."

"They told me I had to come out and do an initiation and said they were looking for special people from each individual valley of Tuhoe to join their freedom fighters, and I asked 'what are you trying to fight? What are you fighting for?"'

The woman went to meet the group in the Ruatoki Valley, where after a few hours of waiting a group of balaclava-wearing men, kitted out in army-style clothing, arrived in a van.

"I thought I was going to be kidnapped - I told them 'I'm not getting into that van', but they said it was all a part of their initiation.

"It was like secret service stuff, but they tried to get me to join their group.

I just told them I was leaving and they were wasting their time."

"And I told them 'take those stupid bloody balaclavas off'."

The woman said she believed she knew at least one of the members of the group, who is from the Ruatoki area.

But after her encounter she was still unclear as to what the group's objectives or motives were.

"I just thought they were out there and pretty mad. Who knows what they were on about."

She said she knew of other people who had been approached by the group, but did not know how big its ranks were or whether there was a hidden weapons cache.

"There's a big chance that they [the police] are looking for weapons. The thing is, those weapons could be anywhere."

Another man from the Eastern Bay of Plenty area, who also did not want to be named, said he had been aware of the group's activities in the Urewera Ranges for at least a year.

He said it was possible people with army experience had been involved in the training.

But Kohineoha MacDougall, a Ruatoki kaumatua, said the police presence in her town was a complete over-reaction to the situation.

She said there was "no way" there could be a terrorist cell in the Ureweras without the people of Ruatoki knowing.

"If there was any raruraru [trouble] we would know; we know what is going on in our rohe [area]," she said.

Mrs MacDougall believed Tame Iti, her relation, would be acquitted of any charges.

"A lot of our old people were terrified seeing so many police here, and I don't know why they had to send so many to arrest Tame. They already knew he had a gun.

"He probably just didn't have enough money to register it."

Mr Tamati Kruger, a Tuhoe historian, lecturer and another relation of Iti, who was among those arrested yesterday, also doubted the existence of the "freedom fighters".

He told the Herald he would be "very interested" in seeing what evidence the police produce around the terrorism cell claims.

"We are interested in what comes from tonight and tomorrow and we will gather together our own knowledge of the events."

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