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Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, East Timor’s top Catholic leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, called on the world to pressure Jakarta to relocate Indonesian army-backed militias still operating with impunity in West Timor and outlined the current state of the reconciliation and reconstruction process in his homeland.

“The U.N., U.S., Europe and Japan have to keep pressuring Indonesia to arrest the militias or move them to another part of Indonesia, so that the refugees in West Timor can return home freely,” he said, speaking last week as part of an international forum on refugees and migrants organized by the Catholic Bishops Conference of Japan and at a meeting with local nongovernmental organizations.

“The Indonesian government has promised many times to disarm the militias, but so far nothing has been done,” he said at a church in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward.

Belo said the refugees in the West Timor camps, who were forced across the border by the Indonesian army and its militias after the East Timorese voted for independence last year, were still living a “deplorable existence in squalid surroundings” and are being prevented from returning home by “brute force and a skillful disinformation campaign telling the refugees that East Timor is unsafe.”

The estimated 100,000 refugees still in the camps are now without food or medical services, after the Sept. 6 murder of three UNHCR personnel led to the evacuation of all international aid workers from the area.

While the situation in West Timor demanded a political solution, Belo said the Roman Catholic Church is also working hard to facilitate the reconciliation process.

He said he sent an open letter to the militias in June stating that the church would help them reintegrate into East Timorese society if they agreed to apologize to the East Timorese people, accept the results of last year’s referendum, cooperate with the U.N. administration in East Timor and the East Timorese leadership, and compensate the victims of their violence either financially or by helping them rebuild their homes.

To date, however, the leadership had refused this offer, he said.

He also renewed his calls for an international tribunal to catch the “big fish” responsible for crimes against humanity committed in East Timor from January to October 1999, saying it would be extremely unlikely that an Indonesian domestic tribunal would be neutral and fair.

The recent violence in West Timor has underscored the fragile nature of the peace currently enjoyed by the East Timorese, and according to Belo, the transition to full independence scheduled for the end of 2001 should be postponed for between one and three years until the border is fully secure and a proper infrastructure is in place.

He also pointed to the need for greater sensitivity on the part of international NGOs operating in East Timor.

“The aim of the NGOs is to empower the local people and help prepare the country to become self-sufficient, so they should communicate with the people and explain their activities. They need to find out what locals are doing and see how they can cooperate with them.”

Appointed head of the East Timorese Catholic Church in 1983, Belo worked to increase international awareness of human rights abuses in East Timor under Indonesian rule.

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