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Radio fights campaign of fear as East Timor faces loss of security forces

Sydney Morning Herald - January 30, 2001

Mark Dodd, Maliana

A community radio station is being used to counter propaganda from pro-Indonesia militia groups and convince thousands of refugees who fled East Timor or were deported after the 1999 independence vote to return home.

Maliana, one of the areas worst affected by post-ballot violence in East Timor, is a few kilometres from the refugee camps across the border in Indonesian West Timor, where as many as 25,000 of the town's residents live in squalor.

The United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) district administrator, Mr Gianni Deligia, says of a pre-ballot population of 94,403 people, only 70,318 have returned.

"We are missing about 25,000 people from the district. That is about a quarter of the refugee population on the other side who come from this district," Mr Deligia told the Herald.

The local radio station and a daily newspaper form part of the UNTAET campaign to woo Maliana's former residents back across the border by countering the militia claims that it is unsafe to return.

The district's close proximity to Indonesian West Timor, recent militia infiltration and the bloody legacy of army-backed militias have made security the biggest concern for the community and its leadership.

"It is clear the militias are attempting destabilisation and infiltration to disrupt the elections and impose their will again," said deputy district administrator Mr Joao Vicente, an East Timorese.

Australian peacekeepers were responsible for security in Bobonaro district but local people worried about what might happen after they and the UN civilian police left, Mr Vicente said.

"The militias will still be here when the UN leaves East Timor. When the UN leaves they [militia] think East Timor will be very weak and they will be able to recover their political advantage."

Their fears are real. Bobonaro suffered severely at the hands of the Indonesian police, army, militias and their backers from the intelligence services and special forces.

Once a thriving country town with some of the best infrastructure in East Timor, it was a deserted, charred ruin when Australian troops entered in October 1999.

The pro-independence umbrella group, the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), says at least 200 people were murdered between January and September 1999.

CNRT officials and UN human rights investigators say at least 64 people were murdered during a 24-hour killing spree between September 8 and 9. The dead included 18 people butchered in the Maliana police station where they had sought protection from the militia. Thirteen people who managed to escape were caught and shot, among them the local CNRT chief Manuel Mayalhaes.

The district is preparing for parliamentary elections, scheduled for August 30, which will result in a fully independent East Timor and the withdrawal of UNTAET.

Already one political party, a breakaway faction of Fretilin, has been involved in violent clashes in the district. RDTL, a Portuguese acronym for Democratic Republic of Timor Leste (East Timor), is accused of receiving cash from Indonesian sources to support the cause of integration, according to the East Timor independence leader, Mr Xanana Gusmao.

RDTL's ability to organise in remote rural areas has taken many East Timorese and senior UN political officials by surprise. Mr Deligia said: "They have been very dynamic in the last two or three months. There have been a series of small incidents appearing on an almost daily basis."

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