Subject: AP: Refugees Return From West Timor

Saturday, March 3 2:28 PM SGT

East Timorese Refugees Return From West Timor

DILI, East Timor (AP)--In the biggest mass repatriation in months, about 500 East Timorese refugees returned from West Timor to their homeland Saturday.

The refugees, who had been living in camps and with families around the West Timorese capital of Kupang, sailed into Dili port on a boat sponsored by the International Organization of Migration.

The boat will return to Kupang Sunday to pick up a further 200 refugees who have registered to return to Dili, the East Timorese capital.

As they left the boat to board trucks to take them to a processing center, many refugees expressed relief to be coming home.

Some 300,000 East Timorese fled or were forced over the border to Indonesian-held West Timor following a U.N.- sponsored vote on independence in August 1999.

After the vote, Indonesian soldiers and their militia auxiliaries went on a rampage, killing hundreds of people. Much of the province was destroyed.

International peacekeepers stopped the violence and most militiamen fled to West Timor. The U.N. is administering East Timor during its transition to full independence, expected next year.

Although more than 170,000 refugees have returned, an estimated 100,000 still live in squalid camps throughout West Timor.

Officials said many of the refugees decided to come home after listening to the experience of friends and relatives who recently returned from U.N.-organized Christmas visits to East Timor.

The refugees were less likely to believe negative propaganda distributed in the camps by former pro-Indonesian militia and their political backers, the officials said.

UN Official Optimistic Others Will Return

"I remain cautious but optimistic that others will come. We will we see whether refugees can now express their freedom of choice," said Bernard Kerblat, chief of operations for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Dili.

Many of the refugees returned with goods from West Timor, including motorbikes, computers, mattresses and televisions.

Saturday's repatriation was conducted by the International Organization for Migration and the UNHCR, which suspended its activities in West Timor last September following the murder of three of its staffers by paramilitaries in the border town of Atambua.

UNHCR spokesman Kris Janowski said Friday that the agency sent staffers for two days to Kupang to interview the refugees and make sure they wanted to return, but that otherwise the U.N. ban on operations continues for the province.

The returning refugees included relatives of former Indonesian soldiers who had been afraid to go home for fear of retaliation. Niurka Pineiro, spokeswoman for the IOM, said they were told that the Indonesian military was now on friendly terms with the East Timorese leadership.

She added, however, that international agencies were worried about the ongoing close relationship between Indonesian security forces and militias who threaten refugees and relief workers.

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