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UNHCR voices concern over plight of East Timorese

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UNHCR voices concern over plight of East Timorese

6 September 1999

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today expressed grave concern over the plight of East Timorese forced to flee their homes by heightened insecurity following an overwhelming vote for independence.

"It is deplorable that a peaceful referendum has now given way to such violence that UNHCR and other agencies are no longer able to provide assistance to the victims, mostly innocent women and children," High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said.

"I strongly condemn attacks against aid agencies," said Ogata, referring to reports of looting of several relief offices. "I appeal to all concerned to allow humanitarian aid to reach those in need."

Ogata dispatched UNHCR's Asia Bureau Director in Geneva, François Fouinat, to Indonesia to discuss with high-level officials continued access by UNHCR to displaced people in East Timor.

In his meetings in Jakarta on Monday, Fouinat urged the officials to create conditions that would enable aid workers to operate in East Timor. The officials said they are taking measures to improve security and restore law and order.

Since late May, UNHCR has delivered assistance to 20,000 people in East Timor, but following an escalation of violence after the vote results were announced on Saturday, its staff were forced to take temporary refuge at the United Nations Mission in East Timor (UNAMET) in Dili.

The head of UNHCR's team in East Timor, said more than 2,000 residents of Dili, most of them women and children, are also being sheltered at UNAMET headquarters. He described conditions in the compound as "appalling" with little food and no sanitation facilities. "People are sleeping wherever they can, on the ground, on cardboard," he said.

UNHCR staff were able to negotiate for police to escort a van to bring food from the warehouse to the UNAMET compound on Monday morning, but it was only good for one day. UNHCR staff said they were negotiating for two more truckloads of food to be brought to the area.

"We could hear gunfire and the sound is getting closer and closer. I could see columns of black smoke from houses that are burning," said a UNHCR worker in Dili. UNHCR in Dili said there was a steady outflow of people running to the hills and that unless security was arranged for these people many lives will be at risk.

Before the referendum, UNHCR estimated 40,000 people had been displaced. Another 25,000 people were reported to have crossed into West Timor since the vote in which a large majority of East Timorese rejected autonomy within Indonesia, deciding in favour of independence. The number of displaced is expected to increase as violence continues.