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Wednesday, October 6, 1999 Published at 13:32 GMT 14:32 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Timorese spiritual leader returns home

Bishop Belo has returned to a devastated capital

The spiritual leader of East Timor, Bishop Carlos Belo, has returned to his devastated homeland after a month spent in exile.

East Timor
The Roman Catholic bishop was given a hero's welcome in the territory's second city, as old women, priests and children hugged him and kissed his hand.

Bishop Belo was forced to flee the territory last month after pro-Jakarta militias, backed by the Indonesian military, went on the rampage after the overwhelming referendum vote for independence.

The BBC's Tony Smith: "The homecoming was a low key affair"
On arrival at Dili airport, he praised the international community for coming to the aid of his people.

As the first major independence figure to return to the province, his homecoming is being seen as an important indication of the improved security there.

Bishop Belo: "My priority now is to be with my people"
He hopes his return will encourage many frightened East Timorese to come out of hiding and begin to rebuild their homes.

After a brief stopover in Dili, he was taken by helicopter to East Timor's second city of Baucau for talks with the territory's other bishop, Basilio do Nascimento.

People cheered from the roadsides as he drove in convoy to Bishop Nascimento's house.

Living rough

Many citizens who fled to the caves and forests in the hills behind Dili, are thought to still be hiding there, despite the presence of a UN peace-keeping force.

"Why do they continue to live in the forest? This is not our life," said Bishop Belo, shortly before boarding his homeward flight from Australia.

[ image: Bishop Belo: Seen as a hero by many in East Timor]
Bishop Belo: Seen as a hero by many in East Timor
"As human beings we must return to our villages, to our towns, to begin to rebuild."

Bishop Belo is seen as a hero by many in East Timor, for his relentless opposition to Jakarta rule in the former Portuguese province.

Despite constant death threats, the Roman Catholic leader led a 24-year long non-violent campaign for independence from his Dili pulpit

Nobel prize

In 1996 his work gained worldwide recognition when he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with fellow independence campaigner, Jose Ramos Horta.

The BBC's Simon Ingram:"Bishop Belo is a hugely respected figure"
But Bishop Belo was forced to abandon the region amid the killing spree which followed the overwhelming vote for independence among his countrymen last month.

For the last three weeks, he has travelled the world, calling for international assistance for his beleaguered people.

His return is to a very different East Timor than the one he left.

Home put to new use

Bishop Belo's ransacked home has been converted into a distribution centre for much needed food.

Before returning from Darwin Airport in Australia, he stated his wish to start healing the scars inflicted on the province.

He said he planned to conduct religious services and pray with his people, who he said should look to the future rather than dwell on the past.

"We pray ... that we will have hope and can have a normal life in the future."

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Internet Links

East Timor International Support Center - Bishop Belo profile

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