Subject: E.Timor president urges refugees to return home from Indonesia

E.Timor president urges refugees to return home from Indonesia

KUPANG, Indonesia. Dec. 27 (AFP) - East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao has said some 16,000 refugees from his country living in Indonesia's neighbouring West Timor province would be welcome to return home.

"It is up to the people to make the best decision. The doors of Timor Leste (East Timor) will always be opened, we will always accept them," Gusmao told West Timor officials during a one-day visit to the impoverished province.

Gusmao's call came just four days before the United Nations refugee agency closes its humanitarian mission in the province after four years.

An estimated 250,000 people fled or were forcibly transported by militia gangs across the border to West Timor during the violence that surrounded East Timor's August 1999 UN-sponsored referendum.

East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia despite intimidation by pro-Jakarta militias.

The majority of refugees have since returned to East Timor but around 16,000 opted to remain in Indonesia. Some were members of the militias that went on an arson and killing spree before and after the 1999 ballot.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees deputy regional representative, Henrik Nordentoft, said earlier this month that "special circumstances demonstrating an ongoing need for international protection and assistance for refugees no longer exists."

West Timor governor Piet Tallo, speaking after talks with Gusmao, said Indonesia remained committed to help the refugees since their plight was a "humanitarian problem that needs to be properly handled."

The United Nations has said the militia gangs were recruited and directed by Indonesia's military. They killed about 1,400 independence supporters and laid waste to much of the infrastructure in East Timor, which had been invaded by Indonesia in 1975.

Later Monday Gusmao was due to hold talks here with about 100 ex-militiamen, including their former boss Eurico Guterres.

Guterres remains free while appealing his conviction for crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 10 years by a Jakarta human rights court but that ruling was slashed to five years last year on appeal.

Guterres headed the notorious Aitarak or Thorn militia which terrorized residents of the East Timor capital, Dili, and its suburbs before and after the referendum.

East Timor gained full independence in May 2002 after more than two years of UN stewardship.

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