Saturday, March 17, 2007

AP Interview: East Timorese prime minister says tough challenges ahead for new government

The Associated Press
Published: March 13, 2007

DILI, East Timor: Jose Ramos-Horta, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping East Timor obtain independence and is now running for president, vowed Tuesday to bring more prosperity to the crisis-wracked nation, but warned that progress would not be easy.

Ramos-Horta was installed as prime minister last year when the tiny country's first post-independence government collapsed following an army mutiny and street violence that killed 37 people and saw the return of peacekeeping troops.

He said in an interview with The Associated Press that grave problems remained, but "not to the extent that some pessimists paint — that this is a failing state or the country is in civil war."

"I think we avoided a civil war," he said, even as gangs clashed in the capital Dili, killing one youth and setting houses on fire.

Ramos-Horta said the years ahead are likely to be tougher than those since East Timor voted to end 24 years of Indonesian rule in a 1999 U.N.-sponsored referendum "because of the crisis that we have had for almost the last 12 months."

"The people will be less forgiving because they've been waiting for more than five years now for the fruits of independence and ... there is a lot of disagreement with the leadership," he said.

Following East Timor's independence break, vengeful Indonesian troops and militiamen killed hundreds of people and torched much of the nation's infrastructure before foreign troops arrived to restore order.

Ramos-Horta was the public face of the East Timorese resistance movement at the United Nations during Indonesian occupation. He was foreign minister before becoming prime minister in July.

He said the next government would bring increased wealth to the country's 900,000 people, who remain among the poorest in Asia.

"Although we have much more money, we have to deliver much faster," he said, referring to an expected infusion of cash from offshore oil and gas reserves.

Some fear that next month's presidential election could spark fresh violence in the country, which is tense amid an ongoing Australian military operation to capture fugitive soldier Alfredo Reinado, who is linked to last year's unrest and outbreaks of gang violence.

Brig. Mal Rerner, the commander of Australian troops who killed five rebel soldiers last week in a failed bid to capture Reinado, said Tuesday the fugitive's arrest before the April 9 election was a high priority.

"We will do everything to ensure a secure environment is maintained for the election period," Rerner told reporters.

A defiant Reinado told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television Tuesday in an interview recorded at a secret location that he would never surrender.

Gang fighting exacerbated by the crisis has continued despite the heavy security presence.

Young man clashed in a trouble-plagued village on Dili's fringe Tuesday, with one gangster stabbed to death and another six seriously injured, Dili hospital spokesman Americo dos Santos said.

Five houses were also torched in the street battle, which local residents say has become a daily event. International security forces reported 20 arrests.

Ramos-Horta is regarded as a front runner in the field of eight presidential candidates.

President Xanana Gusmao, a close ally of Ramos-Horta and the leader of the country's armed resistance to Indonesian rule, is not running for re-election.

But there is speculation he might form a political party to contest parliamentary elections later this year that could see him becoming prime minister, a more powerful post than the largely ceremonial role of president.

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