Thousands of East Timor refugees facing starvation


JAKARTA, Indonesia - Tens of thousands of East Timor refugees living in squalid camps on the West Timor border are running out of food and face starvation by the end of the month, government officials and aid workers in the divided island said yesterday.

The officials called for quick intervention from the central government or the international community, saying they feared an outbreak of violence if the refugees become desperate for food and riot.

International aid organizations had been providing some food and medical assistance to the refugee camps. But those groups withdrew from West Timor early this month after three U.N. workers were killed by militia groups linked to the Indonesian military. With little medicine and with food and water supplies dwindling, conditions in the hot dusty camps, which house an estimated 120,000 refugees, have deteriorated quickly.

"There is only enough food to last for a few more weeks, and after that people will start to starve," Petrus Ribero, head of the Indonesian Red Cross in the West Timor capital, Kupang, said in a telephone interview. Ribero said that Red Cross workers, who are no longer being harassed by the militia forces and are freely visiting the camps, do not have enough supplies to distribute. He said the refugees are particularly in need of proper housing now that the rainy season has begun.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled East Timor last year when pro-Indonesia militia groups went on a killing rampage after the territory voted for independence from Indonesia in a referendum organized by the United Nations. Aid groups have said that they will not return to West Timor until Indonesia improves security there.

The United States has warned Indonesia that if it does not disband the militia in West Timor, it risks diplomatic and economic isolation.

In an effort to address international concerns over the military, President Abdurrahman Wahid fired the deputy commander of the armed forces, Gen. Fachrul Razi, yesterday. The four-star general's dismissal came two days after Wahid replaced the national police chief for failing to resolve a series of bomb attacks in Jakarta and growing unrest across the country.

A Wahid administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the general lost his job because the president was unhappy with the military's slow pace of reform and its failure to stop the militia from killing the aid workers in West Timor. Witnesses have said that the military and local police stood by and watched the slayings.

"I suppose you could say that today's firing was equivalent to why the police chief got sacked," the official said.

But the military, which ruled Indonesia for 32 years under the former dictator, Suharto, continues to exercise considerable power, and the removal of one general is not expected to change much. Some political analysts said that firing the deputy military commander was intended more to address international threats of sanctions than to restructure the armed forces, which have played a heavy hand in the regional and religious violence that is sweeping the country. Officials have said that the military is fanning the fires of unrest to derail the government's prosecution of Suharto on corruption charges and military officials for rights abuses in East Timor.

On Tuesday, Indonesia's top security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, told the U.N. Security Council in New York that the armed forces would start forcibly disarming the militias if they do not surrender their weapons by Tuesday. But Yudhoyono said that Indonesia does not plan to receive a proposed U.N. delegation that wanted to visit West Timor to observe what steps the government was taking to disband the militia and prosecute those responsible for the deaths of the aid workers.

With the withdrawal of the United Nations and most international aid organizations from West Timor, the refugees are more vulnerable than ever to the pro-Indonesia militia.

Father Alex, a Catholic priest from the Atambua Church, which was involved in distributing food to the camps, said that militiamen continued to roam the streets without any interference from the military and that some militia members were stopping vehicles and extorting food and money.

"As of today, I have not seen any evidence of the security forces disarming the militia," the priest said in a telephone interview. "I fear more violence because the refugees would do anything, including rampaging on the church or government offices or commercial warehouses where food and supplies are located."

The head of West Timor's social services department, Yos Mamulak, said the local government distributed 1,040 metric tons of rice - the last of its stock - to the refugee camps on Sept. 9.

He noted that to feed the estimated 120,000 refugees, the agency needed 2,400 metric tons.

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