Subject: LUSA: PM Alkatiri hopeful solution to Govt-Church showdown in sight

East Timor: PM Alkatiri hopeful solution to Govt-Church showdown in sight

Dili, May 4 (Lusa) - Under fire from East Timor's Catholic Church, Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri dismissed any possibility Wednesday he would resign and predicated that negotiations under way with the country's bishops would bring an end to 16 days of non-stop anti-government demonstrations.

Alkatiri met with President Xanana Gusmão, who has been mediating a government-church settlement, for three hours, later telling journalists he was hopeful several thousand Catholic protesters would be off Dili's streets by Saturday.

"I think we're very close to a solution", Alkatiri said, adding that the negotiations faced "a favorable climate".

He also dismissed what he called "rumors" that he planned to announce his resignation to the demonstrators, whose chief church- backed demand has been that he step down.

"If I wanted to present my resignation, I would have done so long ago", Alkatiri added.

People close to the Gusmão-mediated negotiations told Lusa signs were that a joint declaration settling the government-church dispute could be signed Friday.

They said Alkatiri's meeting with the president centered on readying a response to counter-proposals delivered by Bishops Alberto Ricardo da Silva and Basílio do Nascimento earlier Wednesday.

While the bishops' latest position was not made public, the sources said they included new demands, while dropping their original insistence that the government abandon plans to demote religion classes in public schools to non-compulsory status.

The Catholic Church, the sources told Lusa, now demanded the illegalization of prostitution and that the government drop plans to decriminalize early term abortions.

While expressing his optimism a solution was in sight, Alkatiri noted that some of the bishops' demands would require action by parliament and could not be dealt with through a simple "accord between the church and the government".

The signs of a possible agreement relieved Dili, which had braced itself for possible clashes between Catholic protestors and security forces Tuesday, after demonstrators defied a police ultimatum to end the fortnight of demonstrations.

EL/SAS.

Lusa

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