Packets of rice descended on them from the skies yesterday as international aid agencies made the first airdrops over the stricken province.
Two Australian Hercules C-130 military transport planes carried out the mission from the northern city of Darwin. The aircraft dropped food and blankets over several locations, including the town of Ermera, south of the capital, Dili, where 20,000 people are believed to be sheltering in mountainous jungle. Tens of thousands of East Timorese refugees who fled their homes after anti-independence militias went on a murderous rampage are hiding in secluded regions with little or no access to food and water.
From Monday in certain areas the World Food Programme plans to use for the first time a new method called "snow drop". The system, which has taken six years to develop, permits food to be dropped on to mountainous areas or difficult terrain without injuring people on the ground.
The food packages are composed of high-energy biscuits, which are grouped in such a way that they form "wings". The wings mean that the 7oz packets float down slowly and hit the ground gently. The traditional method is to drop packages of cereal weighing about 110lb each. To make sure the operation is safe, a ground crew designates a drop zone and ensures that people are away from the area.
There are no food programme staff on the ground in East Timor, but local people have been given instructions via a satellite telephone. Yesterday's flights, which followed days of negotiations between the Indonesian President, B J Habibie, and the United Nations and the food programme, dropped 15 tons of rice- enough to feed 15,000 people for a day.
There was no immediate prospect of more flights, each of which requires permission from the Indonesian government. "It's case by case," said a UN official. The UN is also trying to get humanitarian relief to up to 150,000 East Timorese who have fled or been moved to West Timor. However, getting access to these refugees is proving difficult and dangerous.
A full-scale relief operation is not expected to get under way until the international peace-keeping force responsible for restoring order arrives in East Timor this weekend or early next week.