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UNHCR confirms three staff killed in West Timor attack

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UNHCR confirms three staff killed in West Timor attack

6 September 2000

UNHCR is shocked and profoundly saddened by the deaths of three staff members in West Timor, High Commissioner Sadako Ogata said today.

"Although we are still awaiting details on the tragic events in Atambua, we know that three of our colleagues were killed in a vicious attack in the town of Atambua," Mrs. Ogata said in New York. "These were peaceful, unarmed humanitarians who gave their lives trying to help those who had lost everything in conflict. Words cannot express the sorrow all of us at UNHCR are feeling today, and our hearts go out to the families of the victims."

The deaths of the three international staff members were confirmed by UNHCR colleagues evacuated on Wednesday evening to Dili, East Timor. The identities of the dead are being withheld pending notification of next of kin. All other UNHCR international staff were reported accounted for.

Mrs. Ogata also said she was deeply disappointed at the failure of Indonesian authorities to make good on their commitment to protect humanitarian staff in West Timor, where there have been repeated security incidents over the past year.

UNHCR had suspended its operations in West Timor following an Aug. 22 attack on three staff members who were severely beaten by suspected militiamen near the town of Kefamenanu, 180 kms east of Kupang. The agency resumed activities on Aug. 29 after Indonesian authorities arrested two of the alleged assailants and agreed to increase security for humanitarian workers.

The violence in Atambua erupted Tuesday morning after a militia leader's body was reportedly found outside the town, which is 30 kms from the border with East Timor. His death triggered a rampage among his followers in Atambua, where UNHCR's office was reportedly trashed and vehicles burned.

An evacuation of aid staff was underway in Atambua, where WFP, UNICEF, IOM and non-governmental organisations have offices. UNHCR had nine international staff in Atambua, working alongside dozens of national staff.

"This horrible incident again underscores the dangers faced by humanitarian workers in conflict and post-conflict situations around the world," Mrs. Ogata said. "Our 5,000 staff members work in 120 countries around the world, many of them in extremely remote and insecure areas. Their job is to assist and protect some of the world's most defenceless people. But today's tragedy should prompt all of us to ask: Who is going to protect the protectors?"

Wednesday's incident is the worst ever single attack on UNHCR staff.

UNHCR has worked with East Timorese refugees in West Timor for the past year. Nearly 170,000 East Timorese have returned home from the west since October 1999, while an estimated 125,000 remain in more than 200 different locations around West Timor.