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Gusmao urges dialogue to avert civil war

Reuters - February 12, 1999

Patrisia Prakarsa, Jakarta – East Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao said Friday dialogue was needed among all groups involved in East Timor to prevent the troubled territory descending into civil war.

In Adelaide, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also warned of the potential for conflict but said Indonesia had assured him it would not suddenly abandon the province to chaos, despite comments by Indonesian President B.J. Habibie that he wanted the East Timor issue resolved by January 1, 2000.

Gusmao told reporters after meeting Portugal's special Jakarta envoy that everybody should be consulted about Timor's future.

"In order to reach a peaceful resolution, it is important to include all sides in the dialogue to reduce the likelihood of a civil war," he told reporters, adding he had repeated his demand for independence to Portuguese envoy Ana Gomes.

"She asked me if I prefer autonomy or independence. It is clear what I want, not what I prefer ... I want independence for East Timor," Gusmao said.

It was the first official visit since Gusmao was moved to house arrest Wednesday after serving five years in Jakarta's Cipinang prison. Gusmao, 52, was arrested in 1992 and sentenced to 20 years in jail for his fight against Indonesia's 1975 invasion.

Indonesia has offered autonomy to East Timor, but says if this is rejected it will consider independence. Habibie said Thursday he wanted to concentrate on Indonesia's other 26 provinces from January 1, suggesting the separation of East Timor could be swift.

But some observers warn the territory could descend into chaos unless it is given time to prepare for independence. The population was deliberately divided by Indonesia's military and pro-and anti-independence groups have clashed in recent weeks.

Australia's Downer said he would meet Indonesian President B.J Habibie later this month to urge a stable and peaceful transition for East Timor to either autonomy or independence.

"I have spoken to the Indonesians ... and they have ... given me an assurance they will absolutely not leave East Timor ... in the way the Portuguese left," he told a news conference.

Portugal withdrew from East Timor in 1975. Indonesia invaded later that year and annexed the territory in 1976 in a move never recognized by the United Nations. Human rights groups say up to 200,000 died in the invasion and subsequent crackdown and famine.

Downer said he was convinced Habibie's new urgent approach to resolving the issue was genuine, and it was possible East Timor could become independent by early or mid-2000.

Prime Minister John Howard said earlier Australia would support any decision by the East Timorese for independence and Australia would be appropriately generous to the new state. But Howard said he was wary the hasty granting of independence to the troubled province would cause massive internal problems in East Timor and be a burden on Australia.

"I'm not saying for a moment that I'm against independence, I think in the short term a period of autonomy within Indonesia would be better," he told Melbourne radio station 3AW.

"But if we just have an arbitrary granting of independence without much preparation or ongoing assistance, you could have a lot of internal collapse in Timor ... and there would be an enormous potential burden thrust on Australia," he said.

Portugal and Indonesia are locked in UN-sponsored talks on East Timor's future. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Thursday it was too early to call the talks a success.