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Australia Warns of Looming Humanitarian Disaster In East Timor


Australia is warning of a humanitarian disaster in East Timor among thousands of residents still living in makeshift camps following politically inspired violence earlier this year. Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson, just back from talks with the East Timorese government, says up to 70,000 people need to be moved to higher ground before the wet season arrives.

Tens of thousands of East Timorese fled their homes in the capital Dili earlier this year when fighting erupted between rival factions of the military.

The bloody confrontations left several people dead and sparked widespread unrest by gangs. Looting and arson forced many residents into makeshift camps in Dili.

Almost six months later, many are still too afraid to return to their homes.

Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson - who has just returned from a two-day visit to Dili - says the threat of disease and the onset of the wet season will make the camps uninhabitable.

"It's extremely important that a number of the camps, which will certainly be flooded and become mud baths - that the East Timorese Government, working with the United Nations, supported by Australian troops, relocate those people as quickly as possible. I'm quite concerned there is an impending humanitarian disaster coming if we do not relocate these people," he said.

The defense minister also said he would consider reducing the number of Australian troops in East Timor.

Canberra has about 950 military personnel in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation. They were sent last May following bloody clashes between forces loyal to the government of then-Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, and soldiers who had gone on strike after complaining of discrimination.

The clashes prompted a widespread eruption of gang violence, fuelled by ethnic and regional differences. Mr. Alkatiri and his aides were accused of providing weapons to one side, and he was eventually forced to step down.

The deployment of peacekeepers from Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia and Portugal has largely restored stability, and the security situation in Dili is described as stable. But there are still safety concerns following the murder this week of two foreigners in the city, one of them a Brazilian missionary.

Elections in East Timor are scheduled for May.