Subject: Indonesia "naive" to say West Timor safe -UNHCR

Indonesia "naive" to say West Timor safe-UNHCR

By Joanne Collins

JAKARTA, Oct 18 (Reuters) - The United Nations on Wednesday rejected Indonesian claims that it was safe for aid workers to return to West Timor, saying militia gangs were still active and holding East Timorese refugees hostage.

"What we hear from returnees is that the militias are still controlling the camps and basically holding refugees hostage," Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in East Timor, said by telephone.

He was responding to comments by a senior Indonesian foreign ministry official that the UNHCR had nothing to fear in resuming operations in West Timor because the pro-Jakarta militias had been disarmed.

The U.N. and other international aid agencies pulled their staff out of volatile West Timor after militias butchered three UNHCR workers in the border town of Atambua on September 6.

That prompted international condemnation of Indonesia, and warnings that vital aid flows could be jeopardised.

However, foreign donors meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday decided to lend cash-strapped Jakarta a fresh $5.33 billion despite concerns over the handling of the militias.

"The militia has been disarmed and I think the militia is no longer there...It is safe for the UNHCR to return," director of Asia and Pacific Affairs at Indonesia's Foreign Ministry, Yusbar Djamil, told Reuters in Malaysia.

He was accompanying President Abdurrahman Wahid on a visit.

But Kessler said reports from refugees managing to escape back into U.N.-run East Timor from the squalid camps indicated otherwise.

"He's being awfully naive...militia have nightly roll calls in the refugee camps and are preventing these people from returning and the disarmament process has been a farce from what we can gather as very few weapons have been handed in," he said.

Police have seized more than 1,200 homemade guns from the militias, who terrorised East Timor before and after it voted last year to break from Jakarta's often brutal rule, but very few standard military weapons.

WEST TIMOR A 'NO-MAN'S LAND'

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, told a news conference in Bangkok that while she believed the Indonesian government was doing its best, West Timor was too dangerous.

"West Timor is no-man's land. The government cannot really maintain law and order," she said.

Indonesian police say authorities are still seizing weapons from the militias, but a mid-October deadline for disarmament has been abandoned. That followed the extension of earlier deadlines set for the end of September.

Indonesia set up the militias in a failed bid to influence the outcome of last year's U.N.-brokered ballot in East Timor, in which Timorese overwhelmingly voted to end Jakarta's rule.

Around 300,000 East Timorese -- nearly a third of the population -- were herded by the militias across the border into West Timor in the aftermath of the August 30, 1999, vote.

The UNHCR estimates 120,000 refugees remain in camps in West Timor and believe that 80,000-100,000 still wish to return.

It had only just resumed operations in West Timor before the September murders following earlier attacks on its staff by machete-wielding militias. No one was killed in those assaults.

Indonesian police have arrested six people over the murders, but none have yet to face court.


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