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President Carter Calls on Indonesia to Ensure Safe Return of East Timor's Refugees

Dili, East Timor...Atlanta, GA…Former U. S. President Jimmy Carter today expressed concern over the plight of East Timorese refugees in Indonesia. Hundreds of thousands of refugees remain in camps in western Timor, Alor, Flores, and Sulawesi, and thousands more are scattered throughout other parts of Indonesia. The Atlanta-based Carter Center has had an observation mission in East Timor since early July.

President Carter, who has closely monitored events in East Timor, urged the Indonesian government to take immediate steps to allow international humanitarian organizations to provide the necessary aid and protection to all refugees in Indonesia. Access is particularly critical in western Timor, where Indonesian-backed militias have been accused of executing refugees, holding them against their will in cramped and unsanitary conditions, and forcing men and boys to join the militia groups.

"I am deeply disturbed that many refugee camps in parts of Indonesia are effectively under the control of armed East Timorese militias who, in some instances, are being actively supported by the Indonesian military and police," President Carter said. "This situation has persisted for more than three weeks. It is now time for clear action on the part of the Indonesian government."

President Carter welcomed the recent agreement by the Indonesian government to provide access for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to the refugee camps and the early start of repatriation to East Timor. However, he stressed that steps taken by the Indonesian government to remedy the situation must include the disarming of militia members and the ending of military and police collusion with the militias.

To date, militia and military activity has severely limited the ability of both domestic and international organizations to provide aid in western Timor. Some refugee camps remain largely off limits to international organizations, despite assurances of free access from Indonesian President B. J. Habibie and Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. Carter Center observers also have received reports of intimidation directed at Timorese refugees, students, and residents elsewhere in Indonesia, and of refugees being prevented from leaving Indonesia.

Carter Center staff and observers, who were forced to evacuate the East Timorese capital of Dili shortly after the September 4 announcement of an overwhelming vote for independence, will return this week for an initial assessment trip and plan to resume operations in East Timor in the coming weeks. Since September 4, The Carter Center has maintained staff working from other locations in Indonesia and Darwin, Australia. Observers continue to gather reports about the refugee situation in Indonesia and the return of refugees to East Timor.

In recent days, a number of senior Indonesian officials have made public statements suggesting that Timorese refugees will be permanently resettled or "transmigrated" to other parts of Indonesia, and transmigration plans reportedly have been implemented in Sulawesi and some parts of western Timor. No such resettlement programs should begin until officials from the UNHCR can verify with individual refugees whether they wish to return to East Timor or resettle elsewhere in Indonesia.

"Any refugees who wish to return to East Timor should be allowed to do so at once with the assurance of adequate security and protection," President Carter said. "During this process, the government of Indonesia must ensure that all Timorese residents or refugees, no matter where they are located in Indonesia, are protected by the police and local government."

The presence of the International Force for East Timor (INTERFET), which has resulted in vastly improved security conditions and allowed for the provision of humanitarian relief, will enable many refugees to return quickly to Dili. In the meantime, however, responsibility for the safety and care of the refugees rests ultimately with the Indonesian government. President Carter urged Indonesia to take swift and effective action to ensure the safe return of the remaining refugees to East Timor.

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