Jakarta offers to move militias to island

The offer to resettle pro-Jakarta gunmen and 100,000 refugees on an island north of East Timor is seen as a step to defuse criticism.

Indonesia has offered to resettle pro-Jakarta militias and more than 100,000 refugees on an island just 60 km north of East Timor in a first step to stave off international criticism to the militia problem.

Just before leaving for New York to deliver a progress report to the United Nations Security Council on the matter, Chief Security Minister Bambang Yudhoyono and two other senior Indonesian ministers met 17 pro-integration leaders in Bali on Thursday to make the offer.

High-level sources told The Straits Times that the island of Wetar, which has a population of 7,000 people, had been identified by the government as the “most probable area” to relocate the refugees over the next few months.

The head of the notorious Aitarak militia, Eurico Gutteres, was quoted by local reports yesterday as saying that most militia leaders would be inclined to accept the offer.

“Giving the island is a mark of appreciation for the loyalty of East Timorese towards Indonesia,” he said. “We accept the offer.”

But Gutteres, whose forces are widely believed to have been responsible for the bloody rampage in East Timor after the independence vote last year and the recent killing of three UN foreign workers in West Timor, stopped short of saying whether it would end further violence in the area.

Asked whether he would stop his fight against the UN-administered East Timor, he replied: “We have not decided on it.”

Indeed, diplomatic sources here said that the proximity of Wetar to East Timor would make it even more likely that further violence could erupt if the militias were intent on carrying out raids.

Wetar is just one hour away by boat from East Timor.

One Western diplomat noted there was also no guarantee that the non-existent infrastructure and limited water and food supply on the island would be able to cater for thousands of refugees.

“But given the choices they have, Wetar is one of the few places on the map that they can come up with,” he said.

“None of the other areas in Indonesia seem to be receptive to the idea of taking in refugees and militias.”

Analysts said the Wetar initiative was the first move to defuse international criticism of the Timor problem.

US Defence Secretary William Cohen, who will meet President Abdurrahman Wahid on Monday as part of a six-nation Asia-Pacific trip, warned yesterday that Indonesia risked rising international condemnation and continued military isolation from the United States unless something was done to stem the violence in West Timor.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Alwi Shihab disclosed in New York that Mr Bambang would deliver a progress report to the UN Security Council on steps Jakarta was taking to resolve the militia problem.

But insiders said his brief mainly was to persuade the UN not to send a mission to the area as it could create “a negative impression of foreign intervention”.

Said Mr Alwi: “We hope the UN will understand and can accept the steps which will be taken.”

He also disclosed Mr Bambang’s meeting in Bali with East Timor leader Xanana Gusmao and the UN chief administrator in the territory, Sergio Viera de Mello.

The meeting was the first between Jakarta and East Timor officials since the murder of the UN staff.

“The meeting sends a signal that we are serious in trying to overcome the problem related to the refugees in West Timor,”
said Mr Alwi.

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