Subject: SMH: UN chief seeks military-led closure of W.Timor's refugee camps

Sydney Morning Herald February 28, 2001

UN chief seeks military-led closure of West's refugee camps

By Mark Dodd, Herald Correspondent in Dili

The head of the United Nations in East Timor, Mr Sergio Vieira de Mello, has given the green light to Indonesia's armed forces to forcibly close down militia-controlled refugee camps in West Timor as a means of breaking the repatriation stalemate.

During a meeting with donors on Friday in Jakarta, Mr Vieira de Mello outlined a radical plan giving support to a forced "camp by camp" closure involving Indonesian security forces, according to a diplomat who attended the meeting.

The plan is similar to the "forced closures" tactic used by the Thai Army to empty Cambodian camps in 1992, which resulted in 500,000 people being repatriated. At that time Mr Vieira de Mello was in charge of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operations in Cambodia.

Final approval had been sought from UN headquarters in New York and from the UNHCR head, Mr Ruud Lubbers.

The diplomat said from Jakarta: "Sergio is daring UNHCR to say, 'No, we want nothing to do with this plan.' It will be very interesting to see their response."

The UNHCR, with other international aid organisations, ceased operations in West Timor after three international staff were murdered by a rampaging militia mob in the border town of Atambua last August.

A second key figure involved in the proposal is Mr N. Parameswaran, the Malaysian chief of staff of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor, who was travelling to Kupang yesterday with senior officials from the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration. IOM has given its strong backing to the plan.

The number of refugees still living in militia-controlled camps in West Timor is estimated at 80,000 to 100,000, most of whom want to return home.

However, there are signs of greater Indonesian Government co-operation to help in the repatriation of the refugees.

This weekend more than 600 émigrés, including 400 refugees and 200 former army personnel and their families, are expected to return to Dili.

Mr Vieira de Mello believes decisive action is required to break the militia hold over the camps if the majority of refugees are to return home by June 20, the final date for voter registration in East Timor's forthcoming national elections. He believes voluntary repatriation is a failure because of continuing militia control over the camps.

Under the new proposal, Indonesian soldiers backed by riot police will begin by securing individual camps, starting with refugee centres around the provincial capital, Kupang. Refugees will then be registered and handed over to the UNHCR and the IOM for evacuation to Dili.

The proposal has the firm backing of Indonesia's Foreign Ministry and the commander of Udayana (eastern region), Major-General Willhelm da Costa, according to sources.

Meanwhile, the number of East Timorese refugees returning home doubled to 1,157 this month compared with January, a senior UNHCR official said.


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