Subject: Gusmao welcomes Timorese militia families home

Gusmao welcomes Timorese militia families home

JAKARTA, Sept 14 (AFP) - In a gesture of reconciliation, East Timor's independence hero Xanana Gusmao welcomed home the families of former pro-Jakarta militiamen Friday as mass refugee returns resumed across the border with Indonesian West Timor.

Gusmao waited for the returnees at the end of the Metamasin bridge, near East Timor's southern border town of Salele, and hugged them as they arrived, Indonesia's Antara news agency reported.

Seeing them off from the other side was the military commander for West Timor, Major General Willem da Costa.

Some 961 refugees attached to members of the pro-Jakarta Mahidi militia were registered to return home Friday, the head of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in East Timor, Bernard Kerblatt, told AFP from East Timor's capital Dili.

By late afternoon 450 refugees had crossed the border and more were still streaming across the bridge, said UNHCR official Iain Hall. Kerblatt said the operation could continue till Saturday.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), providing trucks to take the refugees to their home villages in Suai and Ainaro districts, said the return was the largest since March 2000.

"Another 312 refugees crossed the border at Batugade on Wednesday, suggesting that a long awaited upturn in refugee returns from West Timor may be under way," an IOM statement said.

The Mahidi leader, Cancio Lopes de Carvalho, said before the repatriation that he had allowed his people to leave the squalid camps in West Timor and go home.

"As a former chief of Mahidi, I have sincerely let them go," he told the Jakarta Post newspaper.

In a separate operation, 10 East Timorese children were reunited with their parents after being held in orphanages in Java following East Timor's vote for independence in August 1999.

"The children are here, the parents are here, they are being reunited with their parents now," UNHCR spokeswoman Kemala Ahwil said from a hotel in the Bali city of Denpasar, where the reunion took place.

She said a formal handover of the children to their parents from Octavio Soares, the anti-independence figure who took them to Java, was scheduled for Friday night.

"It's very emotional, there's a lot of hugging, smiling, crying," Ahwil said.

Soares took 124 children from their East Timorese parents and put them in orphanages in Java to give them an Indonesian education -- apparently in hopes of nurturing support among a future generation of East Timorese for a return to Jakarta's rule.

He claims he had the parents' consent but he scuttled previous attempts to reunite the children with their parents.

An estimated quarter of a million people fled or were forced into West Timor in the wake of East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence, ending 24 years of Indonesian rule.

Local pro-Jakarta militias, backed by the Indonesian military, unleashed a wave of killing and destruction in the lead-up to the ballot and in the weeks that followed, until an Australian-led international peacekeeping force arrived.

Between 180,000 and 190,000 refugees have returned from West Timor so far.

Lopes de Carvalho, the Mahidi leader, is among a group of former militia leaders who have been negotiating with Gusmao to bring home people allegedly under their control. Some have been asking for amnesties in return.

The United Nations has since October 1999 been administering East Timor, a Portuguese colony for 400 years before Indonesia invaded.

Elections were held last August 30 for a constituent assembly. Full independence is due to be granted after elections for a president in the first half of next year. Gusmao is expected to win.


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