Subject: Refugee returns to East Timor top 100,000--UNHCR

Refugee returns to East Timor top 100,000--UNHCR

GENEVA, Nov 25 (Reuters) - More than 100,000 refugees have now returned to East Timor, but militiamen continue to hamper repatriation despite a deal signed this week between Indonesia and U.N. forces, the U.N. refugee agency said on Thursday.

In a statement, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it hoped the setting up of a joint border commission agreed on Monday would ``produce a breakthrough in efforts to gain unimpeded access to the camps and halt harassment of returnees.''

The agreement over joint patrols near the border between East and West Timor aims to curb pro-Jakarta militias accused of intimidating many of the estimated 250,000 refugees who fled violence in East Timor after the independence vote on August 30.

``Three days after the setting up of the commission, there has been no noticeable improvement in the security situation, at least in the Kupang area,'' the Geneva-based UNHCR said.

For the first time, UNHCR officials entered Naibonat camp on the outskirts of the West Timor capital of Kupang on Thursday -- accompanied by police and army troops -- to begin repatriation of some 2,000 Timorese, according to the statement.

``The team faced the usual taunts from militias and managed only to extricate four returnees,'' it said, adding that the team planned to return to Naibonat on Friday.

Some 2,600 refugees crossed from the West Timor border town of Betun into Suai, East Timor on Thursday, bringing to more than 100,800 the number of people who have gone home since October either spontaneously or under a programme run by the UNHCR and International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Repatriations have been by land, sea and air from West Timor, from other parts of Indonesia and from Australia.

10:48 11-25-99

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