East Timor Crisis: Massive aid effort poised to follow the troops in

  • @kathymarksoz
THE UNITED Nations said yesterday it would launch a full-scale humanitarian aid effort in East Timor as soon as it was safe to begin relief operations on the ground.

Ross Mountain, the UN High Commission for Refugees' humanitarian co-ordinator for East Timor, flew to the capital, Dili, on one of the first planes out of the northern Australian city of Darwin. He will help conduct a detailed assessment of the location and plight of up to 300,000 refugees.

A massive amount of food and other supplies is accumulating in Darwin, the hub of the aid operation, waiting to be flown or shipped across the Timor Sea. It includes a field hospital, ambulances and medical supplies brought in by the Portuguese government, which are intended to fill the role of the civilian hospital in Dili, now looted and deserted by all but six nurses.

One hundred tons of rice arrived in Darwin yesterday, organised by AusAid, the federal government's central aid distribution agency. Also stockpiled are 60 tons of high-protein biscuits, 200,000 "humanitarian daily rations" and 50 tons of materials such as plastic sheeting, cooking utensils and water containers.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, working from Indonesia, has already begun limited operations on the ground in East Timor, delivering food and medical supplies to 90,000 people living in desperate conditions near the town of Dare.

The World Food Programme will today resume air drops to refugees who are hiding in remote areas after fleeing a wave of violence unleashed by militia opposed to independence for the province. The air drops were interrupted for two days because the C-130 Hercules planes lent by the Royal Australian Air Force were being used to transport troops from the multi-national force.

Asked when the main relief effort would begin, David Wimhurst, spokesman for Unamet, the UN mission in East Timor, said yesterday: "We would expect fairly shortly the arrival of planes carrying supplies."

Abbey Spring, a spokeswoman for the World Food Programme, said yesterday that there were particular fears for pregnant women, elderly people and children. "These are people that didn't have a lot of food to begin with and went into the situation hungry, so we are concerned," she said.

Jose Alexandre "Xanana" Gusmao, the exiled East Timorese independence leader who flew to Darwin on Sunday from Jakarta, was under guard at an undisclosed location yesterday because of concerns for his safety. He will meet Ian Martin, head of Unamet, when Mr Martin returns from Dili later this week.