Children die as Timor militia stop aid from reaching camps

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EAST TIMORESE refugees, most of them small children, are dying every day because pro-Indonesian militiamen are refusing to allow aid workers into their camps, the United Nations said yesterday.

In the past two months, some 160 people have died of malaria and diarrhoea in one camp in Indonesian West Timor alone, more than 90 per cent of them children under the age of five.

Medical workers have visited the camp and others like it, but the militiamen who administer them have either refused them proper access or misled refugees by telling them that they must pay for their treatment, a UN spokeswoman said in the East Timorese capital, Dili, yesterday. In an attempt to lure people out of the camps, aid workers are planning to play tapes and videos of pro-independence leaders appealing to them to return to their homes.

"The problem remains with access to the camps," Ariane Quentier of the UN High Commission for Refugees said. "There has been medical assistance but there is a lack of information. People were told they had to pay, so we have made it very clear they don't ... they can have medical assistance for free."

She said that since mid-October, when the Indonesian parliament formally relinquished its claim to East Timor, at least 157 people had died in the Tua Pukan camp, 23 miles from the border between East and West Timor. Thirty five died in the last eight days of November, 32 of whom were under five years old.

As many as a quarter of a million East Timorese are reckoned to have fled or to have forcibly been transported to the Indonesian west of the island in the three weeks of violence which followed the occupied territory's overwhelming vote for independence from Jakarta.

Since a UN-backed multilateral force began restoring order in September, 113,000 refugees are said by the UN to have returned to their homes.

But the militiamen who - with the support of the Indonesian army - devastated East Timor in September remain in control of many of the West Timorese camps, where they continue to harass, intimidate and harm supporters of independence.

Since an attack by militiamen on a refugee convoy in the town of Atambua, the numbers of people crossing the border has dwindled drastically, and at least 130,000 refugees continue to live in West Timor in camps which are lethally unhygienic and ill-supplied. "The numbers have slowed down since the incident at Atambua," said Ms Quentier. "At that time we had an average of 4,000 [returning refugees] per day and as of then it's been going down, down, down. We had 2,000 two weeks ago and now it's less than 1,000. These figures are not very good, they're very low."

A large number of those who remain appear to be former civil servants, local members of the Indonesian army, militia members and their families, and other opponents of independence who are known to have collaborated with the Indonesian occupation or to have participated in the recent violence.