17 September 1999: Plans for East Timor food drop abandoned

Australia yesterday abandoned efforts to drop food supplies ahead of the arrival of troops in East Timor, leaving more than 60,000 refugees in the mountains at risk of starvation, sickness and attack.

The Australian defence minister, John Moore, said plans to drop the first food supplies yesterday were called off because Indonesia had yet to give diplomatic clearance. Instead supplies will be brought in after the first international troops arrive in East Timor, possibly on Sunday or Monday. "You just can't fly over and drop it," Mr Moore said.

Carmelite nuns in East Timor accused the Indonesian military of planning to bomb refugees once they leave their hiding places to search for food parcels.

In Jakarta, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which wants to deliver food by guarded truck convoys, said it had made only small deliveries of milk powder and candles to the Dili airport and refugees nearby. The Red Cross had only just obtained a promise that the Indonesian military would escort convoys but lacked enough local staff to start right away.

The imminent arrival of foreign troops in East Timor should improve security for food deliveries and give an indication of how many people have fled into the mountains, have been forcibly deported to West Timor or have been killed by pro-Indonesian militias and Indonesian forces.

Horror stories abound about massacres of East Timorese, including reports of boats leaving Dili full and returning empty within an hour, well before they could have reached a safe destination. Of particular concern is the notable scarcity of men in the refugee camps, lending credence to eyewitness reports of targeted killings.

One woman who had 24 refugees staying in her house said armed pro-Indonesian militiamen were still dominating the streets of Atambua, a border town that houses some 75,000 East Timorese. She said militiamen had knived one refugee earlier this week and later dragged him out of hospital before doctors could treat his wounds.

The Red Cross said one of its staff had been kidnapped and another had disappeared. Because of militia attacks on foreigners, only local Red Cross staff could enter the camps but the ICRC hoped to start fielding foreigners in West Timor next week.

Another concern, noted by diplomats in Jakarta, is government plans to relocate the refugees to other islands.

The governor of East Nusa Tenggara, the province that includes West Timor, earlier this week sent a list of suggested migration sites on nearby islands to the interior minister, Syarwan Hamid. United Nations officials, on the other hand, were trying to persuade Indonesia to ensure a safe return for refugees to East Timor.

Some refugees may be quite willing to relocate. Many of the 141,000 refugees in West Timor are part of some 90,000 people who voted for integration within Indonesia, including thousands of non-Timorese civil servants.

An Indonesian police officer who fled with his family to Atambua thought migration was a good idea. "What would they want to go back for?" he said. "Everything has been destroyed."

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