Subject: AP Interview: E. Timor PM Says Aid Needed

AP Interview: E. Timor PM Says Aid Needed

By MICHAEL CASEY, Associated Press Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia - The prime minister of East Timor said Friday that his nation has little hope of overcoming its desperate poverty unless the United Nations extends its presence there and donor countries reject proposals to reduce aid.

Mari Alkatiri also told The Associated Press that the country's future depends heavily on its gaining ownership of vast oil and gas fields in the Timor Sea known as Greater Sunrise ­ an area also claimed by Australia.

The two countries are scheduled to begin maritime border negotiations in November. If the talks go well for East Timor, the country stands to gain $7 billion over the next two decades.

"This is a way to develop our country fully," Alkatiri said in a telephone interview from the East Timor capital of Dili. "We need these resources much more than Australia ... They need to recognize our sovereign rights to this region."

Nearly a year and a half after gaining its independence following four centuries of Portuguese rule and 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation, the country of 800,000 remains Asia's poorest, its $80 million annual budget dependent on foreign aid.

East Timor's finance ministry released figures this week showing that the country's budget deficit is expected to nearly double to $137.9 million by 2007 ­ due to delays in developing oil and gas fields.

Alkatiri insisted that East Timor was making strides, saying the danger posed by returning militiamen had dwindled in the face of the country's newly established police force and army.

The Indonesian military and its proxy militias responded to a pro-independence vote in 1999 by laying waste to the former province, killing 1,500 Timorese and forcing 300,000 from their homes.

Alkatiri also said production of rice had jumped 20 percent this year and investors from across Asia had expressed interest in the country's fisheries, tourism, small business and agriculture sectors.

Yet East Timor is lobbying the United Nations to extend the world body's presence in the country beyond a June 2004 deadline and wants donors to maintain their current levels of assistance.

The United States has proposed cutting its aid for the fiscal year 2004 from $25 million to $13 million. Timorese officials have suggested the increased cost of rebuilding Iraq is behind the funding cuts ­ something Washington has denied.

Alkatiri said the U.S. assistance must not decrease.

"It's nothing compared to what the United States gives to Iraq. This is a new democracy and it has to be consolidated. This is a country that is considered an international success story with the U.N. involvement. For the sustainability of the whole process, we need international assistance."

The United Nations administered the territory for 2 1/2 years, then handed it to the Timorese on May 20, 2002 ­ after establishing a new administration, judiciary, police force and army, in addition to overseeing the first democratic elections.

The transition was lauded as one of the United Nation's biggest accomplishments ­ and today is seen as a possible model for Iraq's reconstruction, despite the vast differences in the two countries' size and character.

About 3,000 international peacekeepers remain in East Timor to support its fledgling army along with about 500 U.N. police officers. Another 1,000 U.N. staffers are providing technical assistance for government departments, including in banking, civil aviation and public works.

Alkatiri said the United Nations should remain in East Timor until 2006. U.N. officials have said the international body is expected to keep a skeleton staff on to advise key government ministries, though the details remain sketchy.

"The process of development will be delayed a lot if the U.N. pulls out or foreign assistance declines," Alkatiri said, warning that if the government had to spend more on security it could be to the detriment of health care and education.

Still, Alkatiri, 51, a former freedom fighter who fled to Mozambique during Indonesia's occupation, expressed optimism that the country will eventually stand on its own feet.

"Timor in 10 years will be a completely different country," he said. "Every child will have a good school and every resident will have good health care, meals three times a day and good housing."

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