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Timor: pace of return quickens

Briefing notes

Timor: pace of return quickens

16 November 1999

Thousands of refugees have been heading for East Timor since the weekend. We may be seeing a snowballing movement back to East Timor. Most returnees are returning on their own. The approach of the rainy season is putting pressure on many refugees to repatriate. The four-month rainy season, usually in late November, allows most Timorese to plant food crops they depend on for the rest of the year.

On Monday, some 6,000 people returned to East Timor - about half of them spontaneously. More than 3,000 people went through three entry points to East Timor - two from the border region across Batugade and Suai and one to the Ambeno enclave in the northern midsection of West Timor.

Today, preliminary reports indicate that more than 2,000 people went back to East Timor - 183 in two flights from the West Timor capital of Kupang to Dili in East Timor; 337 on a ferry from the border port of Atapupu to Dili; and two overland crossings, including 750 to Oekussi in Ambeno and around 1,200 to Batugade.

UNHCR has received reports that up to 20,000 people have returned to Ambeno in recent days. UNHCR staff report that many encampments in Ambeno's surrounding areas in West Timor are now half empty. Up to 50,000 people were reported to have fled to West Timor from Ambeno.

UNHCR has confirmed the return of more than 66,000 people since it began a repatriation programme on 8 October. This figure does not include the 20,000 who were reported to have returned spontaneously to Ambeno in recent days. UNHCR staff say that most of those who crossed into Ambeno today went on foot, bringing with them food and other possessions. They also carried husked corn, which they say they will plant in their fields.

Today, in the first positive sign of Indonesian military cooperation, troops arrested three militiamen after they threatened to physically assault UNHCR staff who were going house to house at the Noelbaki camp, 20 km outside Kupang. The arrests were the first in a camp since the refugee influx began following the August 30 referendum in East Timor. Only 25 refugees repatriated from Noelbaki today. Noelbaki hosts 7,000 refugees, half of whom have expressed willingness to return home.

Elsewhere, UNHCR continues to receive reports of harassment of refugees by militias. On Monday, 57 refugees arrived in Kupang from Soe, about 80 km east of Kupang, to join a repatriation flight to Dili. They said one bus transporting refugees was stoned by militias as it left Soe, but no injuries were reported.