Subject: Migration body repatriates 144 E Timorese refugees from W Timor

Migration body repatriates 144 East Timorese refugees from West Timor

JAKARTA, Aug 15 (AFP) - The International Organization for Migration on Tuesday repatriated 144 East Timor refugees by sea from the capital of Indonesian-controlled West Timor, an IOM official said.

"The ship left from Kupang at 5:00 p.m. (1000 GMT) with 144 people on board," IOM representative Jose Remigio told AFP by phone.

Remigio denied suggestions that the refugee repatriation was speeded up due to rumors of planned protests by pro-Jakarta East Timorese militias on Indonesia's national day on Thursday.

"What we are trying to do is to move the refugees as soon as possible. Since we had no boat during the period of August 1 until last week, we did not move them.

"Another reason is that August 17 is a holiday and we can't allow people to work on holiday," he added.

Remigio however said that he had heard a rumor that the militias, who have been blamed for obstructing the return of thousands of refugees from West Timor camps, were planning a protest, and that security at the Kupang IOM office had been stepped up as a result.

"But it's just a rumor," he said.

Last week militias encircled and threatened the offices of IOM and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the West Timor border town of Atambua, forcing the two agencies to pull most of their foreign staff out of the town.

Remigio said the IOM had replaced the blue and white flag flying outside their offices in West Timor with the red and white Indonesian flag for the duration of holiday period.

"In order to respect the people's tradition. I think everybody raises the Indonesian flag during the holiday," he said.

He said the IOM office in Atambua remained open with 12 local workers there despite last week's attack.

Indonesia said Monday it was preparing to dismantle refugee camps in West Timor within three to six months, and repatriate or relocate the 130,000 people who have been living in them since last year.

Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab said the presence of the camps had financially burdened the government, itself fighting a crippling economic crisis for the past two and a half years.

Shihab also said the plan to close the camps was intended to avert further accusations that Indonesia was trying to obstruct the repatriation of the refugees.

The East Timorese militia, backed by Indonesian armed forces, rampaged through East Timorese in September last year after East Timorese voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence from Indonesia.

Most of the militia chiefs fled into Indonesian-controlled West Timor when international troops arrived to quell the violence.

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