Subject: Australia offers funds to help close W. Timor camps

Australia offers funds to help close W.Timor camps

CANBERRA, Aug 15 (Reuters) - Australia offered financial aid to Indonesia on Tuesday to help close refugee camps near the West Timor border around which militias responsible for killing two United Nations peacekeepers in East Timor operate.

The Indonesian government has pledged to close the camps within six months to stop anti-independence militias from crossing the border to stage raids in East Timor, which voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia last August.

A New Zealand and a Nepalese soldier have been killed in recent weeks in gunbattles near the border between militia and U.N. peacekeepers who were drafted into East Timor last September to quell a wave of violence. These were the first combat deaths suffered by the peacekeepers.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said he was deeply concerned over recent militia activity on the border.

``We are giving a high priority to discussions with the Indonesian government, the U.N. and other members of the international community to explore the difficult practical steps needed to implement Indonesia's proposal,'' he told parliament.

``Australia is of course ready to offer constructive assistance to both Indonesia and East Timor. We have already provided A$7.5 million (US$4.3 million) to assist people in camps and facilitate their return to East Timor, and we're prepared to do considerably more.''

Up to 120,000 East Timorese who fled their homeland during a bloody rampage by the pro-Jakarta militias after last year's vote still live in squalid conditions in camps on the western side of the dangerous Timor border. More than 167,000 refugees have returned to East Timor.

Downer said Indonesia was ultimately responsible for border incursions by militia into East Timor and urged Jakarta to redouble its efforts to end militia activity in West Timor.

Indonesia has come under mounting pressure to close the camps and rein in the militiamen who operate with near impunity in and around the refugee camps.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees suspended repatriation of refugees to East Timor earlier this month, accusing the militias of intimidating its staff.

``The government of Indonesia must provide effective security to ensure that there is no militia intimidation or unimpeded access to camps for the UNHCR,'' Downer said.

``It is crucial that the refugees are able to exercise their choice on resettlement in Indonesia or repatriation to East Timor, free of any intimidation.''

The U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor, which includes some 8,000 troops from more than 30 countries, is helping to prepare the territory for independence.

(A$1 - $0.58)

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