Subject: CNS: UN. force seeks church help in reintegrating E. Timor militias

U.N. force seeks church help in reintegrating E. Timor militias

By Stephen Steele Catholic News Service

DILI, East Timor (CNS) -- U.N. peacekeepers have enlisted the support of priests to help reintegrate militias into East Timorese society.

U.N. troops air dropped about 1,000 leaflets in Alas and Same districts in East Timor, about 40 miles east of the border with West Timor, requesting that militias seeking to return to East Timor contact the local church, said Lt. Col. Brynjar Nymo, spokesman for the peacekeeping force.

Nymo told Catholic News Service that about five groups of armed militias totaling about 80 to 120 men have returned to Alas and Same and are residing in the mountains. Nymo said that militias have contacted the parish priest there on several occasions, asking if it was safe for them to return to East Timor with their families.

The militias have also inquired about the distribution of aid and whether there was enough food in the community, Nymo said.

``Ideally we would want them to contact us directly,'' Nymo said. ``But they have indicated to the local priest that they did not want to talk to foreigners.''

After being contacted by the militias, the priest then contacted the local U.N. commander, saying that the militias had expressed a ``sincere wish to reintegrate,'' according to Nymo.

He said the militias could reintegrate on the condition that they disarm.

Nymo said the U.N. force did not ask church leaders' permission before dropping leaflets asking militias to contact the church, because ``lines of communication were already established'' between the church and the people.

``If you look at the overall history of East Timor, the church has always had a good reputation and strong standing with the people,'' he said.

``They want to speak to someone who understands them, someone who speaks their language and someone who has a respected presence in the community,'' Nymo said.

The spokesman said the peacekeeping force has known of the presence of armed militias in Alas and Same for several weeks, but that these groups have shown ``no pattern of any aggression or hostilities.''

Clashes have occurred involving militias and peacekeeping troops, including one Aug. 29, on the eve of East Timor's independence day. Two U.N. soldiers had been killed in fighting by the end of August.

Recent reports have stated that militias have been threatening local residents and have inquired about the presence and movements of U.N. troops.

Nymo said there have been about a dozen incidents where militias held a local resident ``hostage'' in order to get food or a place to rest for a few hours.

``They've been asking residents if aid is getting out to the people. If they were looking for an offensive, they would not be asking these types of questions,'' he said.

UCA News, an Asian church news agency based in Thailand, reported in late August that on two occasions that month, armed pro-Jakarta militiamen ambushed five Catholic nuns attempting to go from West Timor to East Timor, forcing them to return to Atambua.

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