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BY Jim Cosgrove
DILI, East Timor—The bishop of East Timor has called for an international tribunal to determine who was responsible for the politically motivated violence that has devastated his homeland.
Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, winner of the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize, made the request Nov. 11 at an emotion-filled Mass for priests and nuns killed in the aftermath of a referendum for East Timorese independence.
Bishop Belo issued a pastoral letter two days earlier calling on East Timorese refugees to disregard rumors that discourage them from returning to their homeland.
In his homily at the Mass for murdered priests and religious, Bishop Belo estimated that as many as 1,000 people had been killed in the southwestern town of Suai in the violence.
That figure far exceeds confirmed death tolls for all of East Timor that have been cited by other observers, the Associated Press reported.
After East Timorese voted to break away from Indonesia in the Aug. 30 referendum, there was a rampage by pro-Indonesian forces. Military-backed militia groups destroyed public and private property, forcing much of the population into exile or hiding.
Condemning the violence, Bishop Belo said the responsible Indonesian generals and their local allies should be brought to justice.
“They must go before a tribunal because the crimes that they committed are not acceptable,” he said. “Justice has not been done.”
The Indonesian military has acknowledged that many units and soldiers took part in the violence but it has denied that its hierarchy orchestrated the violence.
In his pastoral letter, Bishop Belo turned his attention to his beleaguered flock, especially those who have yet to return to East Timor.
“Please avoid the attitude and action of frightening each other to discourage your return to Timor Loro Sae (Land of the Sunrise),” Bishop Belo wrote in his appeal to refugees. The letter was reported on by UCA News, an Asian church news agency based in Thailand.
The bishop of Dili said he received reports about “efforts by a certain group to frighten the refugees” into not returning home.
“This effort of terror is launched through the spreading of false rumors and news of an ambush of a returning convoy of refugees by militiamen,” he said.
Assuring the refugees that East Timor is now safe for their return, Bishop Belo denied rumors that many local women have been raped by international troops. He said that the rumor is politically aimed to discredit the international force.
Bishop Belo also denied that East Timorese have been receiving inhumane treatment by the Australian-led troops.
He urged the refugees to register quickly with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees or International Organization for Migrants, or ask religious leaders or government personnel in Indonesia to arrange their repatriation.
“Please pack your belongings quickly so you can return to Timor Loro Sae as soon as possible, because the planting season is coming. Additionally, the 1999 Christmas and the New Year's Eve of 2000 are approaching,” Bishop Belo said.
“For us, the coming Christmas will be a feast of peace, family reunion, and the birthday of the new Timor.”
The bishop called on all parties to respect the decisions of East Timorese refugees to return to their place of birth or to reside outside East Timor.
He advised the refugees to leave their camps in good condition as a sign of good will to their hosts, “who have accepted us as refugees and have sacrificed for our safety and our family members.”
He told the refugees that differences in political views, including over citizenship, should not break the fraternal ties that bind them as children of East Timor.
At least 270,000 East Timorese reportedly sought refuge in West Timor following the post-referendum violence in September.
Most of those refugees are being blocked from returning home by the same militiamen who drove them out of East Timor, a United Nations spokesman told the Associated Press. “Many East Timorese are being forced at gunpoint to remain in camps that lack food, sanitation and medical care,” said Yusuf Hassan, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
“The moment an East Timorese expresses a desire to leave the camps and go home [his] life is in danger,” Hassan told the A.P. in Jakarta. International aid workers in West Timor estimated that 15,000 pro-Indonesia militiamen are still active in refugee camps in the Indonesian-held western half of the island,” according to A.P. (From combined wire services)