Still recovering from the famine which struck only a few years ago, the small former Portuguese colony of East Timor may now be facing new food shortages.
In January, it was learned that Monsignor Martinho da Costa Lopes, the Roman Catholic bishop of East Timor, sent an urgent appeal to nearby Australia, calling for aid. He said that a major Indonesian military operation on the Southeast Asian island territory had disrupted planting, causing food shortages.
In Australia, Indonesian embassy officials denied there was a critical need for food on Timor, but the Australian government said that it would give 1000 tons of corn to help avert shortages. Australian aid officials have been requesting direct access to the island territory, which has been largely shut off to the outside world since Indonesia annexed it after invading more than six years ago.
In the United States, Senator Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts has drawn attention to East Timor. Last December, Tsongas referred to early accounts from Timorese Catholic sources reporting possible food shortages and an alleged massacre of Timorese civilians. On Feb. 8, Tsongas cited additional information from Monsignor Lopes. The Senator noted that there are no international relief agencies working on East Timor on a full-time basis and urged that Australia's Catholic Relief organization be permitted to enter the island to supervise the distribution of the newly promised Australian aid.
''To the best of our knowledge, the food situation is not critical,'' said a US State Department official. The official said that his information was based on reports from diplomats and members of international organizations who visited Timor over the past several months.
As a precautionary measure, however, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helped late last year to fill several warehouses in Timor with food.
American interest in East Timor stems from close US ties with Indonesia, the world's fifth most populous nation. The Indonesians used American weapons in their Dec. 1975 invasion.