Subject: AP- E. Timor Bishop Seeks Independence
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E. Timor Bishop Seeks Independence

By Geoff Spencer Associated Press Writer Thursday, February 4, 1999; 4:47 a.m. EST

DILI, Indonesia (AP) -- East Timor's spiritual leader said today that a vote on independence from Indonesia is crucial to the territory's political future but suggested it be put off for at least a decade.

Roman Catholic Bishop Carlos Belo said a 10- to 15-year delay would allow reconciliation between rival groups.

``Only through a plebiscite can we know who is for Indonesia, and who is against Indonesia,'' Belo said at his home in Dili, East Timor's coastal capital.

Indonesia, which invaded East Timor in 1975, has said it might consider granting independence to the former Portuguese colony but ruled out a referendum, saying it could lead to civil war. East Timor was riven by internal conflict when Indonesia moved in and there are fears that old antagonisms would resurface if its troops pulled out.

Tension has escalated in recent weeks, and hundreds of refugees have sought shelter in Dili and the town of Suai, claiming harassment by armed men.

Belo said pro-Indonesian activists who favor autonomy rather than independence were behind the attacks. Citing church and village sources, he said the Indonesian military had been arming paramilitary groups. Pro-independence activists have made the same accusations.

``Naturally, it is coming from the army,'' Belo said. ``There are some civilians who have arms to threaten the people.''

Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas has denied that the military is handing weapons to supporters of union with Indonesia. He said, however, that weapons had been given to trained civilian guards who act as auxiliaries for the police force.

Army Col. Tono Suratman, the Indonesian military commander in East Timor, said less than 100 guns had been given recently to the guards, reported the Suara Timor Timur, an East Timorese newspaper. Suratman denied rumors that 20,000 guns had been distributed.

Belo, co-winner of the 1996 Nobel peace prize for his efforts to bring peace to East Timor, also said pro-Indonesian groups were manipulating peasants with little political knowledge by trying to convert them to their cause.

``It is better to fight with diplomacy, with intelligence, with discussion, rather than fighting with guns,'' he said.

Despite the tension, U.N.-sponsored talks between Indonesia and Portugal -- which the United Nations still considers the administering power -- are making progress. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has invited Alatas and Portuguese Foreign Minister Jaime Gama for a new round of discussions in New York on Sunday and Monday.

Alatas, who planned to leave for New York on Friday, said the talks would focus on the details of the autonomy offer that Jakarta plans to offer East Timor.

``It's more of an informative character,'' he said. ``We will have a look at how far we've got.''

Alatas has said that Indonesia's highest legislative body, the People's Consultative Assembly, might discuss independence for East Timor if the territory's people reject the autonomy deal.

A delegation of pro-Indonesian officials from East Timor met Alatas today to argue against independence.

After meeting parliamentary leaders, President B.J. Habibie said East Timorese will be eligible to vote in national elections on June 7, despite the uncertainty over their political future.

© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press

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