Subject: AU: Gusmao in fear of militias as peacekeepers pull out

The Australian

December 1, 2003 Monday All-round Country Edition

Gusmao in fear of militias as peacekeepers pull out

Sian Powell * Jakarta correspondent in Dili

THE former militias just over the border in Indonesian West Timor have worried East Timor's President Xanana Gusmao for more than three years. Now, as the international peacekeeping forces leave East Timor, his concern is increasing.

At midnight last night, the numbers of armed peacekeepers in East Timor shrank from 3800 to 1750. They are all expected to be gone by next May, when the UN mission in East Timor ends.

Mr Gusmao estimates 10,000 to 12,000 of the 28,000 refugees living within striking distance of East Timor are former militia, or the families of former militia, or people under the sway of the former militias.

In 1999, rampaging militia gangs tore through East Timor, looting, burning, torturing, raping and murdering. According to the latest UN estimates, the militias and the Indonesian military together killed 1400 East Timorese in the months before and after the ballot on independence.

"We still have contact with these people," Mr Gusmao told The Australian. "I just met about 12 of them three weeks ago in Bali." He said they had raised the same old objections to encouraging their followers to return to their homeland of East Timor: fear of savage retribution.

Yet the exiles' options are dwindling. Broadscale international work in the camps effectively stopped in 2000 when three UN workers and a number of East and West Timorese were killed in Atambua, just over the border in West Timor.

That year, the UN classified West Timor as one of the most dangerous places in the world. Last year, the Indonesian Government stopped assisting the camp-dwellers in an effort to encourage their departure. Their legal status as refugees was terminated late last year.

Some sources report that only a few in the 145 camps eat three times a day; that water and sanitation are inadequate and that there are frequent health crises. Resettlement has been difficult, especially since at least four districts in West Timor have blocked resettlement plans.

Mr Gusmao has been a longtime campaigner for their return. "We have been in this process for three to four years, and we have always told them, come and face justice," he said.

The exiles fear both formal prosecution for their crimes, and informal retribution from those wronged by the violence. Rumours swirl through the camps of bloody revenge and late night disappearances. Mr Gusmao has repeatedly tried to counter the rumours.

"We cannot prevent one beating another," he conceded. "But if they say somebody disappeared without our knowledge, it's a lie. In 1999, one of our people (a Falintil freedom fighter) killed a militia, and he's now in jail. It's to tell you we don't allow people to kill each other in East Timor, even our people, the guerillas, we punish them."

Regular small-scale incursions into East Timor, mostly to rob and loot, demonstrate the exiles' desperation. In September, an indicted militia member armed with a bow and arrow was shot dead crossing the river into East Timor.

For the most part, though, they have been kept in check by the squadrons of armed peacekeepers (dominated by the Australian contingent) patrolling the border.

Mr Gusmao says he is worried about the departure of the peacekeepers. "But it's my obligation to work out other ways to solve this situation," he said.


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