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Timorese protest return of Muslims

Agence France Presse - December 31, 1999

Dili – Several dozen Muslims who fled the recent violence in East Timor returned home to a protest by East Timorese who said they are not welcome, a UN official said Friday.

The 63 Muslims who flew back to Dili on Thursday were almost overwhelmingly of Indonesian origin, said Sidney Jones, who heads the humanitarian division of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

"The people were taken to the mosque and there was some protest by the community that more Indonesians shouldn't be allowed to return. It's not clear what the origins of their anger were but there had been some dispute over their activities in the local market," Jones said. She did not know the number of protesters.

International peacekeepers were sent to the mosque along with representatives of the National Council of Timorese Resistance (CNRT), said Major General Peter Cosgrove, who heads the International Force in East Timor (Interfet). "It was a worrying moment or two," Cosgrove said, adding the crowd dispersed without incident.

Jones said the Islamic refugees had no desire to stay in Indonesia. Sergio Vieira de Mello, who heads the UNTAET mission, said the Muslims are entitled to stay in East Timor.

The predominantly Catholic land is moving toward independence under UN administration after Indonesia approved the territory's separation a ballot there that was followed by a pro-Jakarta militia campaign of violence backed by Indonesian armed forces.

The violence followed an August 30 ballot in which East Timorese voted to reject an offer of autonomy with Indonesia, which invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.

"As far as I am aware, they are entitled to remain here. They left like others in fear because their houses were destroyed. They wish to remain here and they should be allowed to do so irresepective of their religion," de Mello said.

The incident came near the end of the month-long Islamic fasting month of Ramadan. At the start of Ramadan, members of Dili's largest mosque told AFP that despite some threats from local residents, they wanted to stay here. They said the CNRT president, Xanana Gusmao, had already visited to say they were welcome in East Timor.

Members of the mosque, which has more than 200 members, said Muslims have been in East Timor for about 500 years.