Subject: Situation in W.Timor refugee camps 'untenable': US official

Situation in West Timor refugee camps 'untenable': US official

JAKARTA, March 3 (AFP) - A visiting senior US official Friday called the prevailing situation in camps holding tens of thousands of East Timorese in Indonesian West Timor since September "untenable."

"The situation in West Timor (refugee camps) is untenable," US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering told a press briefing here.

He was referring to the camps across West Timor which still hold some 90,000 East Timorese, out of the more than 250,000 who fled or were forced to flee East Timor during the post-ballot violence in the former Portuguese colony in September.

"We feel it is important that the government takes measures to remove the militia leaders and create a situation allowing East Timorese to choose if they want to go back or stay," Pickering said.

Pro-Indonesian militias, who followed the refugees and displaced persons to West Timor when international forces arrived in East Timor, are in control of the refugee camps, and humanitarian workers have accused them of harassing and intimidating the refugees.

"We want the (Indonesian) central government to take action," added US Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Gelbard, who was speaking at the same press briefing.

"We do believe that the governement ought to have the possibility to remove the militias and to prevent them from harassing the population," Gelbard added, also pointing out the "extraordinary level" of foreign aid Jakarta has received from abroad for the refugees in the West.

Rights activists and humanitarian workers have also complained of difficult access to the camps.

Pickering, who arrived here on Wednesday, will fly home later Friday.

During his stay, Pickering met with Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, the chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly, Amien Rais, and several other leading political figures.

Commenting on Aceh, an Indonesian province where separatist rebels have been fighting for the past 24 years, Pickering said that he believed any settlement should be reached through dialogue.

"We do not believe the problem can be resolved by force, but by dialogue," he said.

However, he also made it clear that Washington was not in favor of Aceh breaking away from Indonesia.

"Indonesia's territorial integrity must be preserved," he said.

Calls have been mounting in Aceh for a Timor-style referendum of self-determination for the staunchly Muslim province that is rich in oil and gas.

Clashes and violence between the separatist rebels and Indonesian security forces have already left some 250 people dead this year.

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