Subject: Security in W Timor refugee camps improving: UNHCR

Security in West Timor refugee camps improving: UNHCR

DILI, East Timor, Dec 10 (AFP) - Security conditions are improving throughout much of West Timor, where thousands of East Timorese refugees remain, a senior official with the UN refugee agency said here on Friday.

"It's a turning point," said Francois Fouinat, director of the Asia and Pacific bureau of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

He has just returned from a tour of West Timor, where aid workers have struggled for two months to get proper access to refugee camps which they have said are controlled by pro-Jakarta militias.

"My impression was that now, we are entering a situation in which most of these problems having to do with access and security have been, in a way, receding -- not disappearing completely but certainly the situation has eased up quite a lot," Fouinat said.

He cited the attitude of Indonesian authorities, including the police and military as one factor in the improvement. He also said UNHCR workers have become better accepted in the camps.

Despite the improving conditions, Fouinat said the number of refugees returning to East Timor has decreased.

This is because a large number of those remaining in West Timor are "probably people who have some reason to hesitate," Fouinat said.

"They are the ones who have suffered defeat in the referendum," he said, referring to the August 30 ballot in which East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia.

Independence leader Xanana Gusmao gave a less optimistic picture only last Tuesday after he returned from meetings with Indonesian officials at the border.

Gusmao said he was told that 110,000 East Timorese refugees wanted to return to their homeland and that about 60,000 others, believed to be pro-Indonesia, were less interested.

Gusmao said he was still "very concerned" but he expressed confidence that Indonesian authorities were anxious to speed the return of those who wanted to go home.

Fouinat however said it was "difficult to talk about figures." He said it now appears that the original estimates that 220,000 to 270,000 East Timorese had crossed the border were too high.

More than 115,000 East Timorese refugees have since returned home.

Fouinat said he was in Atambua, West Timor on Thursday as refugees prepared to return to East Timor "in quite a festive atmosphere" from what has been known as a tough camp.

"I hope that this is a sign that this intimidation by the militia, which has been a problem that we have been facing over the last two months, is easing up," he said.

He said the UNHCR is conducting an information campaign to answer questions from the pro-Indonesian refugees about the current situation in East Timor.

As part of that campaign, a 20-minute video featuring Dili Bishop Carlos Belo and Gusmao was recently shown at the refugee camp in Kupang, West Timor.

"Interestingly, these people received it very well," Fouinat said.

Both Gusmao and Belo have alleged that the militias were spreading lies in the camps to scare the refugee from returning home.

They cited rumors of war still on course in East Timor and of alleged atrocities by soldiers of the International Force for East Timor.

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