Sat, 01 Apr 2000

RI hands over E. Timorese refugees to UNHCR

JAKARTA (JP): Indonesia handed over responsibility for some 140,000 East Timorese refugees in the western half of Timor island to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Friday, saying that the cost of caring for them has become too expensive.

East Nusa Tenggara Governor Piet A. Tallo gave notice to UNHCR senior officer Craig Sanders in Kupang to take charge of the refugees.

"The Indonesian government will only assist the UNHCR in the administration and facilitation of certain procedures," Vice Governor Johanes Pake Pani told The Jakarta Post by phone from the provincial capital Kupang.

"The main responsibility from now on will be in the UN's hands," he added.

But the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva said Jakarta had agreed to give East Timorese refugees in West Timor another three months to decide whether to return home or to stay in Indonesia.

"There will be a three-month transition period beginning April 1 to allow refugees to decide and take action on their future -- whether to remain or return to East Timor," UNHCR said in a statement sent to AFP.

The government had earlier decided to cut further aid to the East Timorese refugees as of April 1.

The refugees had been given until March 31 to either return to the new independent East Timor or accept Indonesia's offer of citizenship and be resettled elsewhere in the country.

While more than 100,000 East Timorese have been repatriated in recent months, hundreds of thousands of others remain in refugee camps in the western half of Timor island because they have no home or job to return to.

In Jakarta, Sergio Viera de Mello, Chief of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), made an eleventh hour appeal to Indonesia to extend the deadline.

"I have appealed to the Indonesian government not to discontinue the assistance," de Mello said after meeting with Indonesian foreign minister Alwi Shihab.

"These people need support and information to help them make the right choice -- whether to remain in Indonesia or go back to East Timor," he said.

A local officer at the UNHCR office in Kupang told Antara that the UN agency did not have the means to support all the refugees if the Indonesian government stopped the assistance on Saturday.

"It is impossible for us to take over full responsibility for the refugees if the East Nusa Tenggara administration does not provide things like hospitals, clean water and shelter," Nusya Margono was quoted as saying.

Nusya cited an Oct. 14 agreement between Indonesia and UNHCR which stipulated that Indonesia would take responsibility over the refugees.

Most of the refugees were forced to evacuate East Timor in September by pro-Indonesia militias. The campaign of terror and destruction was conducted after it became apparent that the majority of East Timorese had rejected Indonesia's offer to remain as part of the republic in an Aug. 30 vote.

Foreign minister Alwi Shihab said a Cabinet meeting on Saturday would discuss the refugee situation.

"Our stance with regard to the deadline is firm, not because we wish to be irresponsible but because we cannot afford further assistance," Alwi told the Post.

He said Indonesia was terminating further aid to force the United Nations to think about the fate of the refugees instead of leaving the burden on Indonesia. "Maybe we can talk about an extension, but for how long we just cannot say," he added.

Meanwhile, a senior Indonesian Military officer warned the UN Peacekeeping Force in East Timor against further border intrusions into Indonesia.

"If such acts of provocation happen again, it is possible that Indonesian troops and UN forces will clash," Udayana Military Command Chief Maj. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri said in Denpasar, capital of Bali, on Friday.

Kiki said he had proposed to the chief of the UN force, Lt. Gen. Jaime De Los Santos, to appoint liaison officers to address border problems and to conduct joint-security patrols along the border.

"But I was informed on March 30 that all of our proposals were rejected," Kiki said. (dja/zen/sur)