Subject: UN Says 400,000 Missing Timorese In Mountains

Reuters October 13, 1999

UN Says 400,000 Missing Timorese In Mountains

DILI, East Timor -- Hundreds of thousands of East Timorese are hiding in the mountains across the rugged territory, hampering relief efforts, U.N. officials and aid workers said Wednesday.

"The arithmetic is very difficult to understand... but any way you cut it we're missing about 400,000 people who we believe are in the hills,'' U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance spokesman Michel Barton told Reuters.

That means about half the bloodied territory's people are hiding in jungles and bushland where food and water are scarce.

Another 260,000 fled the eastern half of Timor island altogether and are sheltering in neighboring areas of Indonesia, mainly West Timor.

"We're perplexed... we're very concerned,'' Barton said.

"If these people stay up in the mountains as the rainy season approaches we're going to be facing a time when it's going to be extremely difficult for us to supply them at all.''

About 890,000 people lived in East Timor before a U.N.-supervised ballot on August 30 in which the territory overwhelmingly voted to split from Indonesia, whose brutal army-imposed rule is not internationally recognized.

The vote triggered massive violence as pro-Jakarta militia groups ransacked virtually every settlement in East Timor, systematically killing, burning and looting as they went.

Three weeks into its mission, the U.N.-mandated multinational force known as INTERFET has established a security presence in most parts of East Timor.

Most Indonesian army and police forces have departed East Timor and militia activity now seems confined to an area along the border with West Timor.

So far, only about 150,000 East Timorese have returned to their towns and villages, leaving about 400,000 unaccounted for.

"I don't think the killings can explain this huge discrepancy of missing people. The majority of those missing are surviving or trying to survive in the hills and mountains,'' said Andrew McNaughtan, a Timor activist and a doctor with the relief group Timor Aid.

"They've got a better chance or surviving in the mountains. At the moment there's nothing to go back to. In a large proportion of places these towns are burned to the ground and there's no food.''

With heavy seasonal rains imminent, getting refugees down from the hills and back to towns and villages along main roads where they can be reached is a matter of urgency.

Aid workers say reaching hundreds of thousands of widely scattered people by helicopter would not be practical during what is known here as the "Wet.''

"We think the rains will start in two or three weeks. At that time it will be almost impossible to reach the people in the mountains and then we'll be facing some very dire circumstances,'' said the U.N.'s Barton.

"The children in particular we have every reason to fear will be suffering from respiratory diseases, from malaria which is an endemic problem in this region.

"We are looking forward with anxiety to the return of these people soon.''

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