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Indonesia agrees to repatriate East Timorese refugees from squalid camps in West Timor

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Indonesia agrees to repatriate East Timorese refugees from squalid camps in West Timor

3 October 1999

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today (Sunday) said it is ready to start repatriating East Timorese refugees from West to East Timor.

The announcement came after West Timor's Governor, Piet Tallo, told some 2,000 cheering refugees temporarily sheltered in a sports stadium in West Timor's capital Kupang that anyone who wishes to go home will be allowed to do so.

High Commissioner Sadako Ogata welcomed the West Timor governor's announcement. "If the return actually happens it will bring an end to the ordeal of thousands of miserable people, many of whom have been taken to West Timor against their will," she said.

UNHCR said this was the first tangible result of the meeting last month between Ogata and Indonesia's President B.J. Habibie and other top-ranking civilian and military officials who said those willing to return to East Timor would be allowed to do so.

The West Timor governor's announcement followed a meeting in Kupang Saturday between UNHCR's representative in Jakarta, Rene van Rooyen, and top Indonesian defense officials. On Friday, van Rooyen, accompanied by Indonesian officials had visited the border town of Atambua, where up to 130,000 East Timorese refugees are living in squalid conditions.

West Timor authorities estimate that more than 230,000 East Timorese have fled to West Timor since East Timor's population overwhelmingly voted for independence from Indonesia in a UN-supervised referendum August 30.

UNHCR fears that many of them have been forced from East to West Timor by gangs of anti-independence militia who continue to intimidate them in the camps.

The Indonesian authorities estimate that 60 percent of the East Timorese who are now in West Timor want to go back to the East.

UNHCR said it was preparing to airlift the first refugees back to East Timor as soon as the agency receives a signal from international peace keeping troops that they the situation on the ground in East Timor is stable enough for the return to be feasible, safe and dignified. UNHCR staff are on stand-by in Dili to help those returning.

At the same time, UNHCR is preparing to airlift relief supplies from Darwin in Australia to West Timor to ease the plight of refugees remaining in makeshift camps in the Kupang and Atambua areas. The relief operation will benefit both those who wish to return to East Timor and those who want to stay. The first aircraft is expected to reach Kupang early next week.