Subject: East Timorese return home ahead of independence

East Timorese return home ahead of independence

GENEVA, May 3 (Reuters) - More than 6,000 East Timorese refugees returned home in April, the highest monthly figure in more than two years and an apparent vote of confidence in the soon-to-be independent state, the United Nations said Friday.

Spokesman Peter Kessler told a news briefing the UNHCR refugee agency hoped many more of the 55,000 refugees still in Indonesian-ruled West Timor would go back before the United Nations hands over full control of the territory on May 20.

"We've seen major movement in the past month. It is a vote of confidence," Kessler told Reuters, adding that refugees were being encouraged by the absence of reports of violence against those returning to East Timor.

"There have been virtually no reports of post-return violence over the years so the message is getting across," he said.

East Timor will become the first newly independent nation in the millennium but also one of the world's poorest.

Since the world body began administering East Timor in late 1999, after the former Portuguese colony voted for independence from Indonesia, 205,000 refugees have gone back under its voluntary repatriation program, he said.

Over 250,000 people, more than a quarter of East Timor's population, fled the territory after the referendum on independence when Indonesia-backed militias went on a bloody rampage in revenge for the result, killing around 1,000 people.

The UNHCR spokesman said pro-Jakarta militias were still intimidating refugees in remote camps in West Timor. "The main concern is that the sway of the militias remains strong."

East Timorese president-elect Xanano Gusmao recently met refugees in Atambua and Kefa, "extremist hold-outs" in West Timor, to try to convince people to return, the spokesman said.

Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader who spent most of the 1990s in a Jakarta jail, has also traveled to South Sulawesi in West Timor to try and persuade some 1,000 East Timorese there to go home, according to Kessler.


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