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East Timor: rise in refugee returns from West Timor continues

East Timor: rise in refugee returns from West Timor continues

Continuing a trend that began with a record number of returnees last month, nearly 2,000 refugees have already gone back to East Timor from refugee camps in West Timor, Indonesia, during the first five days of April, United Nations officials said today.

The East Timor office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) attributed the current upsurge in returns - nearly 4,000 came back in March, the highest monthly total in two years - to the territory's upcoming presidential elections and independence celebrations.

There were also unconfirmed reports from UNHCR's counterparts in Indonesia that as many as 2,000 more refugees may return next week.

In a move that can give additional impetus for refugees to return in the coming weeks, independence leader and presidential candidate Xanana Gusmão yesterday crossed the border in a UNHCR convoy and addressed mass meetings of more than 10,000 refugees and their leaders in Atambua and Kefa, West Timor.

During the meetings, Mr. Gusmão handed out 4,000 hand-written postcards from the people of East Timor encouraging their compatriots in the refugee community to return.

Prior to the meeting in Atambua, Mr. Gusmão and Robert Ashe, head of UNHCR-East Timor, met with the regional commander of the Indonesian armed forces (TNI), Major General William da Costa. They all placed wreaths at a former UNHCR office where three agency staff members were murdered by a mob of militiamen in September 2000.

Since October 1999, the total number of repatriated East Timorese refugees is now close to 200,000, and UNHCR estimated there were fewer than 60,000 refugees remaining in the camps across the border.