More than 600 East Timorese refugees returned to their homeland from camps in Indonesian West Timor today in a process facilitated by a Timorese independence leader and former militia leaders, the United Nations administration in the territory said in a statement.
"This is a historical moment," said independence leader Xanana Gusmão. "As we discussed with President Megawati in Jakarta, good relations between East Timor and Indonesia are fundamental." Mr. Gusmão also praised Indonesian regional military commander Major General William da Costa for his efforts in the reconciliation process.
Speaking to the media at the border, Câncio Lopes de Carvalho, a former leader of the Mahidi militia, said that he "was ready to face justice" and that he, as a commander, would take responsibility for any violent acts committed by the Mahidi militia after the 1999 referendum. His brother, Francisco, said that he felt remorseful about the suffering pro-autonomy groups had caused and that he accepted the result of the 1999 vote. "I promise to change my political views," he said.
The refugees crossed the border at Salele, in Covalima district, in the presence of Mr. Gusmão, Major General da Costa, representatives from the Ainaro and Covalima districts, as well as N. Parameswaran, the Chief of Staff of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).
The mass return - in which the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UNTAET played a crucial part - followed a 7 July border meeting led by Mr. Gusmão between community representatives from East Timor's Ainaro district and militia leaders from West Timor.
Meanwhile, Mr. Parameswaran today held a meeting with former pro-autonomy leader Hélio Moniz Caetano, who confirmed that he would return to Covalima district with up to 1,000 refugees on 19 September. The UNTAET official will be continuing discussions with various political and militia leaders in an effort to negotiate further refugee returns. As in the past, Mr. Parameswaran is only conducting negotiations with those refugees not under indictment for serious crimes, the UN mission said.
In another development, UNHCR reported that Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Soren Jessen-Petersen visited West Timor yesterday. He was the most senior staff to travel there since the murders of three of the agency's staff members on 6 September 2000. In East Timor today, Mr. Jessen-Petersen commented on the "more positive atmosphere" of his discussions with Indonesian officials who, he said, were "fully in line with Jakarta's policy that the voluntary return to East Timor of the remaining refugees must now be a priority."
According to UNHCR, an estimated 80,000 East Timorese refugees remain in West Timor, while some 183,000 have returned home.