Subject: Militias remain in W Timor but their power is fading

Militias remain in West Timor but their power is fading

ATAMBUA, Indonesia, Dec. 19 (AFP) - One week after the commander of pro-Indonesian militias ordered his forces to disband, militias remain present here but their power is fading, aid workers say.

"I think the militia are facing an identity crisis about their future, whether or not the government of Indonesia will continue to support them. So the cohesiveness of this group has become weaker," Quang Bui, senior protection officer for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told AFP here on Saturday.

Father Benjamin Joseph Bria, Catholic vicar-general for Atambua, said he's noticed a change over the past week.

"The last two months were very dangerous but now I think it's getting better and the militia are already cooling down," said Bria.

As co-ordinator for the church's refugee relief committee, he said he has seen for himself the improvement in the security situation throughout Atambua and the region.

This bustling small city and the surrounding area along the northern border with East Timor still host up to 50,000 East Timorese refugees, the UNHCR said.

Until two or three weeks ago militias were still seen occasionally carrying homemade guns in the camps, Bria said. That doesn't happen anymore, he said, because the Indonesian security forces have cracked down on weapons possession.

"The militia are quite disappointed now," said Bria.

Journalists travelling in Atambua about 10 days ago saw two militiamen with homemade gun stuffed down their shirts on the western edge of the city. On Saturday, the only guns visible were toys in the hands of children playing on city streets.

Bui said that three weeks ago his staff still needed protection from Indonesian security forces to enter the Haliwen refugee camp, which has more than 4,000 residents.

"This camp is hard-core, controlled by militia," said Bui, whose staff have been stoned by people in the camp.

On Saturday, Bui felt safe enough to drive alone with two journalists into Haliwen. There were no threats, just loud words from a pro-Indonesian drunk who thought Bui had come to forcibly take him to East Timor.

The camp is a collection of large plywood and thatch huts spread across a sports field. Red and white Indonesian flags fly in front of all the dirt-floor huts.

Men worked sawing and hammering together dozens of wooden bed frames which they said they were paid Rp 10,000 each by the police to assemble.

"In East Timor there's no income," said one man wearing a black T-shirt bearing the name of the Aitarak militia from Dili, East Timor.

"I am a member" of Aitarak the man smiled, and proudly pointed to the red and white Indonesian logo on the left breast of his T-shirt.

But there are supposed to be no more militias, he is told.

"Here we are all refugees. We don't know militias. We don't know army," the man said.

Bria said that at a smaller camp near the bishop's compound "there are many militias inside." Refugees in an adjoining camp agreed but when AFP and another journalist visited the camp in a former school, a man claimed the militias had dispersed.

"There are no more militias here. In East Timor there are," said Fabianus Jehaman. He said he was a school teacher originally from Flores but had lived in East Timor for 10 years.

"Indonesia is better," said another man who walked up to the group carrying a metre-long stick.

"Go home. Go home," he called with a funny smile as the journalists left.

Physical threats are no longer the primary way in which refugees are prevented from going home, Bui said. Now, he said, the deterrent is misinformation spread about the situation in East Timor.

Many of the remaining refugees are militias and their families, who live alongside other refugees who fear them and who still want to go back to East Timor, Bria said.

There is still fear, Bui said, but the militias have lost some of their power to determine whether people go home or not.

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