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Indonesia says can consider freeing East Timor leader

Reuters - September 10, 1997

Raju Gopalakrishnan, Jakarta – Indonesia can consider releasing East Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao but only as part of a comprehensive solution on the troubled territory, Foreign Minister Ali Alatas said on Wednesday.

Speaking to the Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club, Alatas also said granting special autonomous region status to East Timor, a former Portuguese colony invaded by Indonesia in 1975 and annexed a year later, was not possible.

He was reacting to a suggestion by South African President Nelson Mandela on Tuesday that East Timor be granted autonomy to end conflict in the territory.

Despite the rejection of the request, Alatas held out hope for reconciliation on other aspects of the problem.

"If there is acceptance of East Timor as an integral part of Indonesia, there can be some quid pro quos by Indonesia," he said.

"We can look into releasing Xanana Gusmao."

Mandela, who has been engaged in efforts to mediate between Indonesia, Portugal and East Timorese leaders to help the United Nations find a solution to the future of the territory, has requested President Suharto to release Gusmao.

Gusmao, the leader of a band of armed guerrillas, was jailed for 20 years in 1992 for resisting Indonesian rule in East Timor and is lodged in a Jakarta jail. He was taken to meet Mandela when the South African president visited Indonesia in July.

Alatas said Suharto had responded to Mandela's request and although he could not divulge the contents of the message, Gusmao's status was clear.

"He was tried, given a sentence and jailed because of criminal activities he has indulged in," Alatas said.

"Releasing him just like that would be a great injustice to those who suffered from those activities. But if it is part of an overall solution, we can consider it.

"We hope our friends, and our foes, will accept that position."

Alatas said also that he found little indication that Portugal, which is engaged in tripartite talks with Indonesia and the United Nations on East Timor, was willing to look for a lasting solution.

"We may get somewhere if there is political will on both sides," he said. "My feeling is Portugal has not got the political will for a compromise. We have never seen any change in their position – it's always referendum, independence, referendum, independence.

"If Portugal is willing, there may be progress although it will be difficult. The problem of East Timor is very complex now and is enmeshed with all kinds of interpretations and prejudices."

Alatas said also that although there were three autonomous regions in Indonesia – the capital Jakarta, the ancient city of Yogyakarta and the province of Aceh – the government was moving toward ending the special status of both Aceh and Yogyakarta.