Subject: AP: Militia leader urges ETimor refugees to return

U.N.: militia leader urges ETimor refugees to return

05/09/2000 Associated Press Newswires

GENEVA (AP) - A prominent pro-Jakarta militia leader has told East Timorese refugees in West Timor they are free to return home, and the first group in weeks has left hardline camps there, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Tuesday.

Since the weekend, some 200 people have left the camps for a UNHCR transit center in Kupang, the provincial capital of Indonesian West Timor , agency spokesman Kris Janowski said.

"This is the first significant movement in several weeks," Janowski said. The return operation has been paralyzed recently by militia intimidation of the refugees and by fears of reprisals at home against refugees associated with Indonesian rule in East Timor .

On Tuesday, Eurico Guterres, the leader of one of the militia gangs that terrorized East Timor last year, told a large group of refugees that they are free to go home, Janowski said. It was the first time that a militia leader has publicly urged them to return, he noted.

Guterres' Aitarak, or Thorn, militia group was based in Dili and is blamed for most of the killings, destruction and looting in the East Timorese capital. Along with other gangs, Aitarak members withdrew from East Timor during the final days of Indonesian rule.

"Over the next few days we'll see whether those opposing repatriation will allow people to go home or not and whether this increase ... is evidence of a larger trend," Janowski said.

On Friday, East Timorese who oppose repatriation stoned a U.N. team that was trying to pick up 100 refugees who volunteered to return from a camp near Kupang, he added.

UNHCR has said it believes half of the 100,000 people still in refugee camps in West Timor would return to their homes if they were free of harassment.

An estimated 250,000 East Timorese fled over the border last year to escape violence from Indonesian troops and their militia allies who opposed a vote for East Timor 's independence.

The violence continued until international peacekeepers landed in East Timor on Sept. 20.

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