KUPANG, Indonesia, Dec 10 (Reuters) - Pro-Jakarta militiamen armed with pistols and clubs threatened U.N. aid officials in Indonesian West Timor on Friday, preventing them from entering camps for East Timorese refugees.
"This is the fifth time we have been unsuccessful in extracting refugees from the camps here," said Aida Qara'een of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in the West Timor capital of Kupang.
Four aid workers, escorted by unarmed Indonesian police, were confronted by gangs of armed militiamen in two camps on the outskirts of Kupang.
One of the camps was a barracks for the Indonesian military, or TNI, where East Timorese TNI members and militiamen and their families are staying.
"The militia have been bearing arms on three occasions, even though the military tell us they have disarmed them," Qara'een said.
The UNHCR estimates 28,000 East Timorese refugees remain in three camps on the fringes of Kupang.
Because of the strong militia presence, the U.N. and non-governmental organisations only gained access to the camps for the first time two weeks ago, and have so far been largely foiled in efforts to repatriate refugees.
"We've had hardly any movement out of the camps, only 15 here or 20 there," said Yusuf Hassan, head of the UNHCR's Kupang operations.
HEALTH PROBLEMS WORSENING
Hassan said serious health problems had emerged in the camps due to a lack of medical care and had been compounded by the onset of the rainy season.
He said conditions at Tua Pukan camp, 28 km (17 miles) from Kupang -- where 161 people have died since late September -- were the worst in West Timor.
"When we finally got access to the camps we discovered a one-year-old with diarrhoea and fever and that's when we realised medical problems were there and...an emergency officer from the WHO (World Health Organisation) was sent in from Jakarta to investigate," he said.
A WHO source in Kupang said the mortality rate had halved since mobile health teams began working in the camps a week ago.
"We have had local health department teams working in the camps and in fact, there have been no deaths reported in the last three days. Prior to that, the death rate was around four per day, then it dropped to around two per day," he said.
Ketut Indra Jaya, a doctor working in the camps with a German non governmental organisation, said diarrhoea, malaria and acute respiratory infections were the main causes of death, but cholera was also a danger.
"Most of the camp conditions are the same -- very bad sanitation, untreated water, very few latrines -- and with the wet season it will get worse," he said.
"We have seen cases of cholera in Atambua, not Kupang, but there is a possibility we could see some cases."
The United Nations said impeded access was not the only problem it faced. Hassan said the militias were spreading propaganda in the camps to discourage people from returning home.
"We started an information campaign in mid-November, circulating leaflets...and doing radio broadcasts about what the U.N. was doing and an update on East Timor about how hospitals and schools were re-opening," he said.
"There is so much misinformation in the camps, stories about how INTERFET (the International Force for East Timor) is separating men and women and that returnees are getting killed."
An estimated 250,000 East Timorese fled or were forcibly moved to West Timor in September amid a campaign of violence mounted by the militias and Indonesian military following East Timor's overwhelming vote for independence.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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