(New York) -- People fleeing the terror in East Timor or being forced out by militias have no protection over the border, Human Rights Watch said today. The same army-backed militias are now in West Timor patrolling the refugee camps, bus terminals, and even the main airport, and some of them have already attacked pro-independence refugees.
Human Rights Watch called on the Indonesian government to allow unrestricted access to the camps and to other places where East Timorese were being held, including the district military command and police headquarters in Belu, West Timor, and to ensure the safety of both the displaced and international relief workers.
"Any camp under the control of the Indonesian armed forces cannot offer reliable protection right now to people fleeing East Timor," said Sidney Jones, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch. "International agencies have to be allowed in immediately, to protect the displaced."
More than 70,000 East Timorese are believed to have fled or been expelled to West Timor, the western half of the island that is part of a separate Indonesian province. Two international humanitarian agencies have had some access to the refugees in and around the border town of Atambua, but their expatriate and local staff may be vulnerable to militia-led attacks.
"It's clear that the same militias who are responsible for the devastation over the last week in East Timor have pushed the crisis into West Timor," said Jones. "They appear to have forcibly expelled thousands of terrified people by truck or boat, then handed them over to local security forces who control the camps. These people are not safe from the militias, and they are not safe from attacks by pro-Indonesia elements in the camps."
Jones noted that thousands of pro-Indonesia refugees, many of them East Timorese associated with the Indonesian adminstration, fled into West Timor after the huge turnout for the referendum on August 30 indicated a pro-independence result. People from among this group may have been responsible for an attack on the United High Comissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff on Sept. 7, but it is impossible to know whether or not that attack was spontaneous or planned.
The Indonesian government is saying it cannot guarantee the security of international relief workers because the displaced persons hold foreigners and the United Nations responsible for their plight. "This excuse for restricting access echoes the Indonesian government's spin on the Aug. 30 vote," said Jones, "and is almost certainly an indication that the displaced are now being used as part of a larger ploy to discredit the referendum."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said today that events unfolding in East Timor "could amount to crimes against humanity," and that if these reports are confirmed, Indonesia could not escape responsibility for such crimes.
"A comprehensive investigation is obviously needed," said Jones. "Certainly, the people responsible for these events must be held accountable."