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Thursday, 4 April, 2002, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Gusmao calls East Timor refugees home
Xanana Gusmao addresses refugees in Atambua
Mr Gusmao told the refugees they were needed
The East Timor independence leader, Xanana Gusmao, has urged refugees still living in Indonesian West Timor to return home in time for the 14 April presidential elections.

Mr Gusmao told a crowd of some 10,000 refugees in the West Timor border town of Atambua that they must experience the joy of independence along with their compatriots.

The refugees fled from the east during widespread violence following the vote for independence in 1999.

The number of refugees returning home has dramatically increased recently. Four thousand people were repatriated last month, the highest figure for two years.

The BBC's Richard Galpin says the refugees have been particularly encouraged by Xanana Gusmao's decision, as the leader of the long resistance to Indonesian rule, to contest the presidential election, which he is widely expected to win.

But some 60,000 remain, many of them members of militia groups who opposed East Timor becoming independent or are intimidated by the militias into staying put.

Symbolic transport

Our correspondent, who is travelling with Mr Gusmao, says the independence leader chose to travel by road rather than by helicopter to demonstrate that he trusted the Indonesian security forces and the West-East border route was now safe.

Gusmao meets young refugees
Gusmao promised the refugees they would be safe

His first stop was Atambua, where the majority of East Timor refugees live.

"I guarantee security in East Timor. Therefore I am asking all of you to immediately make a decision on returning to East Timor," he told a cheering crowd

He pledged that none would face any serious acts of retribution, as law and order had been restored.

But he warned that: "Freedom does not mean things will immediately change for the better. That is why we have to work together".

Intimidation

The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, says militia leaders seek to persuade people it is still too dangerous to return home.

Mr Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader, has implemented a series of initiatives to persuade the remaining refugees to return home before the elections.

He has repeatedly said he supports granting amnesties to former militiamen to encourage refugees to return to East Timor.

There are also cash incentives set up by the Indonesian Government to encourage families to go home.

The UN will continue administering East Timor until it assumes full independence next month, but the province has already held its first democratic election, won last August by East Timor's veteran independence party, Fretilin.

Fretilin - the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor - spearheaded the fight for independence from Indonesia in East Timor, which was a Portuguese colony before 1975.

See also:

29 Oct 01 | Asia-Pacific
25 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
06 Sep 01 | Asia-Pacific
21 Sep 01 | Country profiles
02 Feb 00 | Asia-Pacific
30 Aug 00 | East Timor
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