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Thursday, September 30, 1999 Published at 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Aid convoy Gurkhas fire warning shots

The Gurkhas were welcomed by local children but not militiamen

British army Gurkhas have opened fire while escorting the first aid convoy in East Timor.

They fired warning shots to dispel a group of militia men and made two arrests.

About 30 Gurkhas had been sent to accompany the convoy through an area in which several rival militia groups are operating.

[ image: The Gurkhas made two arrests]
The Gurkhas made two arrests
The Gurkhas have been deployed to escort two lorry loads of food and medicine into the eastern town of Los Palos, and deliver them to the local priest for distribution.

But having done so, they discovered that local people were too scared to come down from the mountains because of the presence of local militiamen.

The BBC's David Willis: "The impression is these were shots fired to deter people"
The Gurkhas went up to convince the refugees to come down, in the course of which they ran into the militias and warning shots were fired. Two arrests were made.

In the past week the area has become a battleground for three rival militia groups, one of them made up of former Indonesian army soldiers. Six people have died.

In Dili, a group of pro-independence guerrillas has offered to work with the UN peacekeepers in an effort to restore peace to East Timor.

But the Falantil guerrillas refused to hand over their arms, saying they needed them as protection against the militias.

The commander of the peacekeeping force, Major General Peter Cosgrove, said any move by any of the factions to enter the mainstream was to be applauded.

Los Palos cheers convoy

Hundreds of cheering East Timorese people had earlier turned out to welcome first aid convoy to reach Los Palos.

"The presence of Interfet is the end of genocide in the far land of East Timor," said one message, scratched on the side of a house in charcoal.

"Welcome Interfet, your presence is our life," said another banner strung from swaying trees.

"These people have lived through two weeks of terror," said Father Manuel Freila, a Spanish missionary who stayed in Los Palos despite violence that followed East Timor's decision to break from Indonesian rule in an August 30 referendum.

He estimated that up to 100 people might have been killed in and around Los Palos.

Many were still hiding in the mountains and others had been forcibly deported to other parts of Indonesia, he added.

Houses, shops and offices had been gutted by fire while a holding cell at the local military compound bore blood stains. There were also reports of bodies being found down wells.

Many empty villages lined the winding road to Los Palos from the East Timor capital Dili, testament to the terror wrought by pro-Jakarta militias.

Medical mission

The aid convoy brought in rice, materials to build shelters and the British Gurkhas also set up a mobile medical clinic.

They decided to evacuate three people, including a baby girl with pneumonia, from the town.

Medics said the most common problems were wounds and chest infections, which they believed were mainly caused by people inhaling smoke from burning buildings.

But amid the destruction in Los Palos, a hospital and Catholic mission stood relatively unscathed.

Father Freila explained that Indonesian troops had entered the hospital and ordered everyone out when they were confronted by nuns assisting the wife of an East Timorese soldier have a baby.

He said: "The sisters... faced them and said: 'Look this is one of your families. Tomorrow it might be your own, so don't destroy this hospital or you will all go to hell'." The troops then left.

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