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Wednesday, September 29, 1999 Published at 13:13 GMT 14:13 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Timor aid effort expands

Peacekeepers are overseeing a gradual return by some refugees

As refugees start to return in large numbers to the East Timorese capital, Dili, international agencies are trying to provide relief supplies within the city, as well as expand operations in other towns.

East Timor
The need for the urgent supplies was underlined when hundreds of hungry East Timorese looted a food warehouse near Dili airport.

The looters got away with about 30 tonnes of rice, according to officials of the aid agency World Vision Australia.

On Wednesday, an aid convoy escorted by British Gurkhas left Dili for Baucau. It should continue to the militia stronghold of Lospalos on Thursday.

Michel Barton, a spokesman for the UN's humanitarian operations in Dili, said the Lospalos trip was mostly an assessment mission, but the convoy would carry some food provided by the UN's World Food Programme (WPF).

[ image: The aid distribution hasn't been all smiles]
The aid distribution hasn't been all smiles
In Dili, World Vision is distributing rice and the medical relief organisation Medecins sans Frontieres (MSF) has opened an emergency clinic.

An MSF nurse said that skin ailments are the most common problem - simply because many people have not had a chance to wash for weeks.

Respiratory infections are also common and many patients are being provided with a seven-day course of antibiotics.

UN relief officials say that up to 70,000 people who took refuge in the hills around Dili were streaming back at the rate of 10,000 to 15,000 a day.

But there are still severe food shortages. WFP estimates that 80% of East Timor's population - about 740,000 people - will soon be in need of food aid.

The BBC's Yvette Austin: "In a way the refugees were the lucky ones"
WFP spokeswoman Abby Spring said on Wednesday the UN food agency was hoping kill two birds with one stone by hiring people to clean up the city and paying them with food.

[ image: A French military doctor attends to a returning refugee with a week-old bullet wound at a Dili field hospital]
A French military doctor attends to a returning refugee with a week-old bullet wound at a Dili field hospital
"We want to start a food-for-work programme. What we will do is pay people in food to start cleaning up Dili, so it's food for clean-up. This way you not only get food to the hungry people, you employ people and get some security to the city," she said.

"Once it gets going, we'll start food-for-reconstruction, rebuilding the markets and rebuilding the houses."

Air-drops suspended

The looting for the Australian warehouse was just the latest incident of its kind.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke: "The International effort to get aid through has been desperately slow"
"This is the second time in a week," said Lynn Arnold of World Vision Australia.

"We certainly let them keep what they have - in a sense, it has gone to people who need it."

The UN has suspended its programme of relief air-drops in favour of an intensified system of escorted convoys after growing problems with the air-drops.

[ image: Relief agencies say massive amounts of aid will be needed]
Relief agencies say massive amounts of aid will be needed
Biscuits in the daily rations dropped over the past week to refugees hiding in the mountains had too much protein for the refugees' fragile digestive systems, officials said.

"It's just giving them stomach aches, basically," said UN spokeswoman Afia Ali.

THe BBC's David Willis in Dili: The aid operation continues
On Tuesday, one crate of supples fell on a three-year-old boy near the eastern city of Manatuto, crushing both his legs. One leg had to be amputated.

A spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Kris Janowski, said that until peacekeeping forces were able to secure more of the province, relief supplies would be limited to the capital, Dili, and surrounding areas.

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