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Dili returns to normality after accord ends 20-day demo

Lusa - May 9, 2005

Dili – Traffic moved freely through the center of the East Timorese capital Monday for the first time in nearly three weeks, following the signing of an accord between the government and the Catholic Church that put an end to non-stop, church-sponsored demonstrations.

Thousands of demonstrators dispersed, while hundreds were trucked home to interior villages under police escort, Sunday after an open-air mass in Dili.

The 20 days of anti-government demonstrations came to an end after Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri and East Timor's two Catholic bishops, Alberto Ricardo da Silva of Dili and Basmlio do Nascimento of Baucau, signed a negotiated Joint Declaration Saturday, reaching agreement on a series of policy disputes and creating a Permanent Working Group (GTP).

To be set up within one month, the GTP, which will include representatives of the government, the Catholic Church and of other religious confessions, is mandated to oversee implementation of the bilateral agreement and to seek to "avoid future problems".

The eight-point Joint Declaration underlines the importance of religious values in overwhelmingly Catholic East Timor and guarantees that religious instruction in public schools will remain a required subject, putting an end to a pilot program demoting it to optional status.

The Joint Declaration also stipulates that criminal code proposals before parliament will make voluntary abortion a crime, except where "absolutely necessary" to protect a pregnant woman's life, and will equally declare voluntary prostitution as a crime.

Under the agreement, the government also pledged not to carry out reprisals against protesters, who tied up downtown Dili for nearly three weeks in unauthorized demonstrations outside the government's headquarters, and to provide police escorts for dispersing demonstrators.

The generally peaceful, church-orchestrated protests began April 19 over the religion-in-schools issue, but quickly escalated into broad denunciation of government policies and calls for the prime minister's resignation.

President Xanana Gusmao, who helped mediate the accord and signed it as a witness, was booed by protesters when he went to the demonstration site Saturday to announce a solution had been agreed and to ask demonstrators to go home.

The president was frequently interrupted by protesters who shouted "Down with Alkatiri", demanding the prime minister resign. When Gusmao responded that critics could vote against Alkatiri, the son of minority Muslim family, in elections expected in 2007, protesters began shouting for the president to step down also.

Gusmao, who was accompanied by the two bishops and East Timor's top UN official, Sukehiro Hasegawa, left the site under police escort. Later, some demonstrators hurled bottles and stones at police guarding the government building, slightly injuring two officers.