BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei -- The oil-rich sultanate of Brunei in southeast Asia declared independence from Britain Sunday as a new Islamic nation, ending 96 years as a British protectorate at the stroke of the new year.
With three shouts of 'Allah Akbar,' or 'God is Great,' and a 21-gun salute, the tiny country of 205,000 people became the world's newest independent nation and one of its wealthiest.
The declaration just after midnight Saturday (11 a.m. EST) by Sultan Sir Muda Hassanal Bolkiah, 37, ended the vestiges of British control -- over defense and foreign affairs -- and cut the ties that London has maintained since 1888.
The path to independence was eased by British cooperation and cushioned by more $4 billion in oil and gas sales each year. The resources have enabled the sultan's government to provide a tax-free system of benefits and services that mute objections to his autocratic rule.
Officials said the independent Brunei will pursue a conservative, anti-communist foreign policy and will continue to welcome foreign business.
The young sultan proclaimed that Brunei 'is and with the blessing of Allah shall be forever a soverign, democratic and independent Malay Moslem monarchy.'
He pledged to seek 'the security, welfare and happiness of my people and the maintenance of friendly relations among nations.'
The sultan immediately announced a seven-man Cabinet in which his father was made defense minister, a brother foreign minister and another brother minister for culture, youth and sports.
More than 50,000 people -- one quarter of the nation's populace - were expected to join in the overnight celebration, the largest assembly in the 500-year history of the Brunei sultanate.
Tens of thousands of Brunei Moslems braved monsoon rains Saturday to gather at mosques nationwide to pray for their country, which sits on the Malaysian northern side of the island of Borneo on the South China Sea, with Vietnam to the northwest and the Philippines to the northeast.
At the national mosque, thousands greeted the sultan, who has led the 2,226-square mile territory since 1967.
The new official name of the country is Brunei Darussalam -- Brunei, the abode of peace.
There was no lowering of the British flag because it was replaced when Brunei regained control of its internal affairs with a written constitution in 1959.
As a symbol of independence, the British High Commissioner, Francis Cornish, will leave the colonial residence from which British officials have run the affairs of Brunei since 1906.
A British battalion of gurkhas will remain in the country under a five-year agreement to bolster national defense. Brunei also immediately becomes a member of the British Commonwealth.