Wed, 08 Jan 2003

Maluku to repatriate thousands of refugees soon

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The Maluku administration said on Tuesday that it would this year send home as many as 3,000 families of around 165,000 refugees still stuck in camps in and around Ambon city following four years of sectarian violence in the troubled province.

Head of the Ambon social affairs office M.A. Namsa said the provincial administration had submitted a formal request for the central government to provide funds for the repatriation program.

"We have proposed plans to repatriate some 3,000 families of refugees in 2003. It (the number) is the same as the number of houses rebuilt by the Maluku public works office for refugees," he told the Antara news agency.

"It is hoped that the proposal receives a positive response from the central government," Namsa added.

He said the plans were part of the central government's decision last year to resolve the refugee problems across the country through repatriation and resettlement programs.

Namsa said the Ambon mayoralty administration recorded at least 170,590 refugees living in the eastern city after they fled years of fighting between Muslims and Christians since January 1999 from dozens of villages throughout the province.

At least 6,174 of the refugees have returned home since, and the remaining 164,416 others are still languishing at camps across Ambon, he added.

Namsa said the refugees who had been repatriated to their villages were given Rp 750,000 each for food and transport allowances.

In addition, each of the returning refugees also received Rp 250,000 for life insurance to resume new activities in their villages, he added.

Religious violence first broke out on Jan. 19, 1999, between Muslims and Christians, leaving some 6,000 people dead and tens of thousands homeless.

The rival sides signed a peace deal in early 2002 in Malino, South Sulawesi to end the long-standing conflict. It did significantly reduce clashes but sporadic violence has occasionally erupted, especially since the Laskar Jihad militia refused to accept the Malino accord.

Local residents have said the withdrawal in mid October of the Java-based paramilitary militia, which was blamed for worsening the fighting, helped efforts to restore peace in predominantly Christian Maluku.

Ja'far Umar Thalib, leader of the apparently disbanded Laskar Jihad, was released temporarily from police detention on charges of provoking renewed attacks in Ambon after the Malino agreement. He was also accused of defaming President Megawati Soekarnoputri in his speech to his followers in the conflict-torn city.