Subject: RT: Australia congratulates E.Timor Gusmao, pledges aid

Australia congratulates E.Timor Gusmao, pledges aid

CANBERRA, April 17 (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister John Howard congratulated East Timor's first elected president, independence leader Xanana Gusmao, on Wednesday for his election win and pledged continued Australian aid to the nascent state.

"I congratulate Xanana Gusmao on his election, it was not surprising but it is an important moment and it is an occasion for Australians to take a degree of pride in the role that we played," Howard told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

"The people of East Timor are very fortunate to have committed people like Xanana Gusmao and (senior minister) Jose Ramos Horta and many others to lead them," he added.

Gusmao, a former guerrilla leader, was on Wednesday declared the landslide winner of East Timor's first presidential election, the final step in the territory's long and bloody road to nationhood.

East Timor will formally become the world's newest nation on May 20 when the United Nations hands over administration to the new government.

Howard said Australia would continue to do what it could to support its fledgling neighbour and would continue to provide soldiers in a support role as the traumatised nation struggled to rebuild from its bloody independence vote in 1999.

The two countries are separated by the 400 km (250 mile) wide Timor Sea.

"We'll continue to help it, we'll continue to have Australian forces there for some time and we'll continue to contribute a lot of aid in other forms," Howard said.

Australia led a U.N.-backed peacekeeping mission to East Timor after pro-Jakarta militia went on the rampage in the wake of the territory's August 1999 vote for independence.

Australia has earmarked A$121.8 million (US$65 million) in aid for East Timor in 2001/02, with A$30 million given directly to the new government and the remaining aid funnelled through international development organisations.

East Timor was once a Portuguese colony but was invaded and taken over by Indonesia in 1975.

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