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SALELE, East Timor (AP) _ With chickens and pigs in tow, around 1,000 East Timorese refugees returned home Friday, two years after fleeing their homeland when it erupted into violence during the 1999 independence ballot.

East Timor's independence leader Xanana Gusmao greeted the refugees on their return from Indonesian West Timor in the border town of Salele, 62 miles southwest of the capital Dili.

He predicted the homecoming, the largest since the beginning of year, would be the first of many over the next few months.

``It is a very important step for the future,'' Gusmao said. ``This event is a practical way to show to refugees what they can do to live together with other East Timorese and develop our country,'' he said.

Around 250,000 East Timorese either fled or were forced into West Timor by militiamen and Indonesian soldiers after the 1999 ballot that ended decades of rule by Jakarta.

At least 50,000, many of whom are being held as virtual prisoners by the militia who fled with them, remain.

Friday's return was the result of months of negotiations between the U.N. administration in East Timor and militia leaders.

Cancio Lopez da Carvalho and his brother Nemecio _ former commanders of the ``Live or Die for Integration'' militia _ accompanied the refugees across the border, but returned to Indonesia after meeting with Gusmao.

``Xanana and all of the East Timorese people are ready to receive us, so I am not afraid to come back,'' said Cancio Lopez da Carvalho.

Gusmao, who is almost certain to become the territory's first president when the temporary U.N. administration pulls out next year, has said he supports amnesties for militiamen who admit to their role in the 1999 violence.