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Leaks from Mandela's misdirected letter cost ambassador his post

The Star - August 6, 1997

Peter Fabricius – South Africa's dramatic expulsion of Portugal's ambassador at the weekend for allegedly holding and leaking to the press a misdirected letter from President Mandela to Indonesian President Suharto has created great controversy in diplomatic circles and raised a host of unanswered questions.

In the letter, written in mid-July, Mandela asked Suharto to release East Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao as a first step towards resolving the conflict over the island of East Timor, which Indonesia occupied militarily in 1976.

Mandela wrote the letter after a surprise visit to Gusmao during his visit to Indonesia earlier last month.

The existence of Mandela's request to Suharto emerged only last week, when Mandela confirmed it, but it was denied by the Indonesian government.

According the Indonesian press, Suharto did not receive the letter until last Friday, two weeks after it was sent, because Mandela's office had sent it to the Portuguese embassy instead of the Indonesian embassy, who had leaked the contents to the Portuguese press.

South African government sources yesterday confirmed an Indonesian newspaper report that, as a result of his actions, Vasco Valente had been given 48 hours to leave the country. He left on Saturday..

But last night diplomatic sources raised many questions about the explanation of events given by the Indonesian and South African governments.

The biggest riddle was: why would a diplomat of Valente's calibre make such a stupid mistake as to retain a letter sent to him in error?

Portugal has been at loggerheads with Indonesia for 21 years over East Timor, which was a Portuguese colony at the time Indonesia invaded it. Since then Portugal has been locked in negotiations with Indonesia under United Nations auspices.