Voting peaceful in historic E.Timor poll

SINGAPORE, AUG. 30. Tens of thousands of East Timorese voted on Thursday in the first-ever free elections to elect 88 members to a Constituent Assembly, which will draft a Constitution and take the country towards full independence.

Belying fears, the polling was peaceful - unlike the U.N.- sponsored referendum two years ago - which saw massive violence against the East Timorese by gangs linked to the Indonesian Government.

The East Timor leader, Mr. Xanana Gusmao, who has announced his candidature to run in the Presidential elections scheduled for April 2002, said about Thursday's polls: ``I believe this will be very calm, very peaceful. It shows the maturity of our people. It means we have confidence in the future.''

``I am happy, happy for them (the people) because I feel for them, it is the beginning of a new life,'' Mr. Gusmao stated. The voter turnout was high and could be around 90 per cent or more, U.N. officials were quoted as saying.

Fretilin, the party which led the fight for liberation from Indonesia, is widely expected to get a majority in the elections. A total of 16 parties and some 1,000 candidates are in the fray while the strength of the electorate is 425,000.

Thursday's polls are seen as a major step forward for democracy in the country. On August 30, 1999, despite violence and intimidation, the East Timorese voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a U.N.-sponsored referendum.

AP, AFP report:

Polls opened shortly after sunrise at 7 a.m. (local time) at 248 booths across the territory, under tight security from 1,500 U.N. police and the 850-strong east Timorese police force.

Villagers dressed in their best sarongs were already queuing outside polling centres before gates had opened while others could be seen walking along highways to polling booths in darkness hours ahead of the voting.

Local election staff and police personnel were the first to vote in the northern coastal town of Manatuto, 35 km east of the capital Dili, where Mr. Gusmao grew up.

Mr. Gusmao voted soon afterwards, waiting patiently in a queue accompanied by his Australian wife Kirsty and their 11- month-old son.

The half-island territory - the other half is still Indonesian - has been a sea of colour as party faithful joined parades and rock concerts until the U.N. Administration's ban on political activity came into force on Tuesday.

The 88-member Assembly will draw up a Constitution, paving the way for choosing a President, most likely in another election by April, and ultimately independence for the former Portuguese colony. Informal results are expected by about Sept. 5 and a formal tally on Sept. 10.

- Reuters