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6,000 Refugees Returned to East Timor - 2002-05-03

The United Nations refugee agency has said more than 6,000 refugees returned to East Timor over the past month, the highest figure in more than two years. Agency officials hope tens of thousands of other refugees will return home to the soon-to-be independent state.

The U.N. refugee agency calls the return of the 6,000 refugees a vote of confidence in East Timor, which will become fully independent on May 20. The agency said it hopes these returns will encourage some 55,000 remaining refugees to go back to the homes they fled in August 1999. About a quarter of a million people fled East Timor following the violence that erupted after a referendum on the island's independence.

The East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence, and the violence was blamed on militia groups who wanted East Timor to remain part of Indonesia.

UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler said the vast majority of the remaining refugees are now living in settlements in West Timor. He said many of them want to go home, but are afraid to do so.

"The main concern is that the sway of the militias in a few of these isolated regions of West Timor remains large. But we hope that the coming independence of East Timor, the reconciliation process will also encourage people to go back," Mr. Kessler said.

He said there have been virtually no reports of violence against Timorese who have returned home, and this should give the refugees confidence that they can return safely.

He said President-elect Xanana Gusmao is working with the UNHCR to encourage the refugees to repatriate and to work toward reconciliation.