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Improved atmosphere gives hope for speedy return of refugees to East Timor, Kofi Annan says

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Pointing to a faster pace of reconciliation in East Timor, Secretary-General Kofi Annan today expressed the hope that an improved atmosphere would very soon allow the refugees still in West Timor camps to return home in peace and safety.
Speaking in New York at his last press conference of the year, the Secretary-General said he was delighted that Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid had accepted his invitation to visit East Timor. Mr. Annan noted that he had extended his invitation to President Wahid with the full consent and encouragement of East Timorese political leader Xanana Gusmao.

The Secretary-General also announced that he had decided to appoint representatives of the Philippines and Australia as, respectively, commander and deputy commander of the force that would take over responsibility for security in East Timor in the New Year. Mr. Annan said they would help ensure continuity with the excellent job done by the present International Force (INTERFET) under General Cosgrove of Australia.

Meanwhile, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said today that after an all-time low last week, refugee returns from West Timor picked up this week as hopes for more repatriations were buoyed by the disbanding of a militia group.

More than 2,100 refugees returned to East Timor Monday and Tuesday, according to UNHCR and its partner in the repatriation programme, the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Since 7 October, 116,566 people have returned to East Timor.

Hopes for the speedy return of more East Timorese refugees in militia-controlled camps in West Timor were raised by Sunday's border meeting between CNRT President Xanana Gusmao and militia leader, Joao Da Silva Tavares, UNHCR said. Yesterday, at a ceremony held at Haliwen refugee settlement attended by 2,000 militiamen, Mr. Tavares announced the disbanding of his militia group and urged his supporters to abandon violence and return home to pursue their objectives by peaceful means.

UNHCR said its field officers in Atambua were predicting a significant increase in the number of returnees in the next few days although torrential rains have been washing away roads and bridges, further complicating the repatriation operation.