Subject: Indon to cut aid to E Timor refugees on March 31

Indonesia to cut aid to East Timor refugees in West Timor on March 31

JAKARTA, March 9 (AFP) - The Indonesian government will cut off all assistance to East Timorese refugees still holed-up in camps in West Timor on March 31, a UN High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR) official said Thursday.

"The Indonesian government said the cut off date is 31 March," visiting UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner, Soren Jessen Petersen, told journalists here.

Petersen said that although there were no precise figures, he estimated the number of diplaced persons in the camps in West Timor at around 100,000 people, roughly half of whom were likely to want to return to East Timor.

Over 250,000 people fled or were forced to flee East Timor following the post-ballot violence there in September, and UN aid to them has been channelled through the government.

Some 150,000 people have since been repatriated or returned home, Petersen said, labelling it "one of the most difficult repatriation operations" in which the UNHCR has been involved so far.

However, Petersen said that in his talks with Indonesian ministers since arriving here from East and West Timor on Tuesday, the government had assured him that it will exercise flexibility in implementing the aid cut off date.

He did not elaborate, but the government has also said that March 31 is the deadline for the refugees to choose whether to go home or stay in Indonesia.

Petersen said Indonesian officials have assured him that they intend to do their best to "create an environment where the refugees can make the choice," of whether they want to return home or stay in Indonesia.

He said that so far, access to the refugee camps in West Timor had been difficult, and the security in camps uncertain with the influence of the pro-Indonesian militias there.

The militias, who went on an unchecked rampage in East Timor after the announcement of the pro-independence results of the ballot early in September, fled to West Timor with the arrival of multinational forces on September 20.

Rights and humanitarian workers as well as UN and foreign officials have since said the militias controlled the camps and continued to intimidate those wanting to return home.

"There are so many uncertainties ... there is so much intimidation," Petersen said of his concerns for the refugees still remaining in West Timor.

But he also said that some of the refugees were adopting a wait and see attitude before making their final choice of whether to stay or return home.

Petersen said he believed that after the cut-off period, there will only be a "short period" before all remaining refugees would have made their decision.

However, he declined to say how confident he was that the refugees would be able to make their choice freely, saying that all he could do was trust the assurances made to him by Indonesian officials that they will work to create the necessary environment for the free choice.

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