As a second round of emergency food drops was carried out by Royal Australian Air Force cargo planes yesterday, Ross Mountain, the UN's humanitarian coordinator for East Timor, told the Independent on Sunday: "The situation is getting very dire indeed. We understand that in some areas people are succumbing to malnutrition and dying of hunger."
In one village alone near the town of Dare, six people had already died of starvation, said Mr Mountain. Dysentery and malaria have also claimed lives among refugees in the province, and epidemics of typhoid and cholera are feared due to lack of clean water and sanitation.
An estimated 300,000 refugees are in hiding in remote areas of East Timor, and another 150,000 are in West Timor, most of them living in insanitary and overcrowded camps.
Dozens of aid agencies are on stand-by in the north Australian city of Darwin, waiting to launch full-scale relief operations as soon as East Timor is secured by the international force.
There is grave concern about the plight of refugees in West Timor. An Oxfam aid worker who has just visited the two main camps in Kupang said in Darwin yesterday that two bodies, identified as East Timorese, had turned up in the past week. Janet Hunt, executive director of another charity, the Australian Council for Overseas Aid, said reliable sources had told him that militias had been seen combing the camps for independence supporters and taking men and boys away. "They have disappeared, fate unknown," she said.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, will visit Kupang and the border region today to try to assess the situation. The Oxfam worker, who asked not to be identified, said refugees in West Timor were terrified of a murderous backlash by the militias once the peacekeeping force went into action. "There is a real threat of reprisals, and these people are completely vulnerable," she said.
In another sinister development, the Indonesian authorities have reportedly declared that the refugees in West Timor are to be classed as "transmigrants" and resettled elsewhere in Indonesia. David Wimhurst, spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in East Timor (Unamet), said some reports suggested that people had been forcibly removed by boat to other parts of the archipelago. "It's not clear how many, and confirmation has been difficult to get, but these reports are alarming," he said.
Isolated tales of courage and altruism are also emerging. The Oxfam worker told of a Filipino priest, known as Father Rolando, who had persuaded the Indonesian authorities to airlift 10,000 East Timorese to Kupang. They had all sought sanctuary in the compound of his Jesuit seminary in the town of Kormaro.
In Jakarta, Xanana Gusmao, leader of the Falintil East Timorese guerrilla army, said his field commanders had seen the Indonesian army, the TNI, firing mortar shells into hills where refugees were sheltering.
Mr Gusmao, who has taken refuge in the British embassy after his release from jail, said there had been scattered clashes between the army and Falintil fighters. He said of the militia and the TNI: "They are not human beings; they are irrational beings. They kill children, they kill babies. In the Balkans it was ethnic cleansing; in East Timor it is selective murder."
Yesterday's air drops, organised by the UN's World Food Programme, delivered 20 tons of food to refugees near the towns of Ermera and Bobonaro. Mr Wimhurst said that the drops, which will continue daily until supplies can be taken in by road, were a "quick-fix solution" that had "only touched a small portion" of the people in need. "It is clear that a massive amount of humanitarian aid has to go in," he said. "We need to get much more tonnage in on the ground and that will be done when the troops go in."
Aid workers yesterday expressed frustration at the delay. Vicky Horne, a spokeswoman for Oxfam, which is waiting to send in water tanks and sanitation equipment, said: "We are desperate to get in. Not tomorrow, not the next day, but today."