Subject: SCMP: Meeting hopes to kick-start return of E. Timor refugees

South China Morning Post Monday, August 14, 2000


Meeting hopes to kick-start return of refugees


International agencies responsible for the repatriation of refugees are to meet Indonesia's military today to negotiate the return of 20,000 East Timorese connected to the former Indonesian civil defence force in East Timor. It is hoped the meeting, in the West Timor capital, Kupang, will kick-start the repatriation process, which has slowed to a trickle.

"We will be meeting with the TNI [Indonesian army] and the International Organisation of Migration to negotiate the return of refugees with Milsus [defence force] origins," said a member of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kupang.

If successful, the initiative will be a breakthrough in the problem of returning 93,000 East Timorese refugees still in camps in West Timor. An estimated 260,000 East Timorese fled the territory after an overwhelming vote for independence in the UN-sponsored ballot last year.

Although 167,000 refugees have already returned to East Timor with the help of UNHCR and the International Organisation of Migration, the past few months have seen the number of returnees dwindle to about 100 a week. At this rate, international workers in East Timor worry that it could take months to return the refugees, many of whom were connected to militias or the former Indonesian regime in East Timor.

As the refugees show no sign of moving, militia intimidation against international aid workers in West Timor has increased, forcing the UNHCR to suspend repatriation in several camps.

Violence continues in the camps despite a sweep for weapons by the Indonesian army in April. In the past three weeks, an increase in militia activity on the border and in East Timor has resulted in the deaths of two UN peacekeepers.

The United Nations administration in East Timor says it believes there are currently as many as 60 armed and highly-trained militiamen operating inside East Timor.

The increase in activity has led the UN mission to issue its strongest statements to date criticising the inability of the Indonesian Government and military to clear the camps of armed militias.

"The solution is what we have been requesting from the Indonesia Government from October last year, which is to identify, disarm and detain those extremist elements who are operating from within the camp. As long as that does not happen, refugees will continue to not come back and our people will continue to die," UN mission head Sergio Vieira de Mello said on Friday.

This latest move is expected to encourage refugees connected to the Indonesian military to return without fear of reprisals. In order to reassure returnees, members of the Indonesian army, UN mission and East Timorese resistance army Falintil met recently in Denpasar, Bali, and agreed to allow eight former members of the Milsus force to travel to East Timor on a "look and see" visit.

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