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US human rights official meets community leaders in East Timor

Agence France Presse - March 22, 1997

Linawati Sidarto, Dili – A senior US government human rights official met with community leaders on the second day of a fact-finding visit to the troubled territory of East Timor on Friday.

John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, met with the chairman of East Timor's Action for Development and Progress Foundation, Florentino Sarmento, and the rector of the Universitas Timor Timur, Armindo Maia.

After the separate meetings, both men declined to give details on the talks other than it was a "good meeting."

"It was open and sincere and we discussed a lot of issues," said Sarmento who is widely respected as a community leader in East Timor.

Maia said that "human rights was not the only issue that we discussed," but declined to elaborate further.

Shattuck, who made no comment after each meeting, is scheduled to wind up his 24-hour visit to East Timor later Friday.

Embassy sources said that he was also scheduled to meet with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Dili before leaving town.

On Thursday Shattuck met with East Timor Governor Abilio Jose Osorio Soares, the head of the military command in East Timor Colonel Mahidin Simbolon and 1996 Nobel peace prize recipient, Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo. Belo Friday declined comment on his talks with Shattuck.

However, he said that the human rights situation in East Timor, annexed by Indonesia more than 20 years ago, as "not very good, people still get tortured, so I am not very happy."

The outspoken Belo, has often angered Jakarta by his comments on human rights violations in East Timor.

Jakarta annexed the former Portuguese colony of East Timor in 1976 a year after invading it in a move never recognized by the United Nations or most countries, including the United States.

Shattuck's office in January released its annual human rights report that was severely critical of human rights violations in Indonesia, including in East Timor.

Indonesian authorities have dismissed criticism of human rights violations in the country, saying it is an internal matter. The strong military presence in East Timor has long been criticized for frequent human rights abuses.

Belo hailed Pope John Paul II's speech for the inauguration of East Timor's second bishop in Baucau on Wednesday as "very good.'

"I hope the Indonesian government puts this into practice," Belo said.

In his written speech, the pope said that "The Holy See, together with the international community, hopes that a prompt and truly just, globally and internationally accepted solution will be found for the painful and complex question of East Timor."

He also said that "in the midst of considerable tension, the people (of East Timor) await the response for their legitimate aspiration to see recognition for their specific cultural and religious identity."

Most of the 800,000 population of East Timor is Roman Catholic. Indonesia is overwhelmingly Moslem. East Timor was a Portuguese colony for over 450 years while Indonesia was under the Dutch for some 350 years.

"The United States wishes to help Indonesian in reaching a settlement to the problem of East Timor," East Timor's government spokesman Expedito Dias Ximenes was quoted by the official Antara news agency as saying after the meeting between Soares and Shattuck.

Ximenes said that Washington "will forward the information obtained (by Shattuck) during his two-day visit to this area to the UN secretary general."

"The purpose of the trip is to emphasize the importance that the US places on the positive discussions under the auspices of the UN secretary general on the issue of East Timor," Shattuck said Thursday shortly after his arrival here.

He also said that the issue of human rights was "one of the issues on my agenda."

The UN secretary general has since 1983 sponsored dialogues to seek a solution to the problem of East Timor, between Indonesia and Portugal. Lisbon severed ties with Jakarta shortly after the latter sent its troops to East Timor in 1975.