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East Timor declares independence

JAKARTA, Indonesia, May 19 -- Thousands of people gathered in Dili at the stroke of midnight Sunday to witness the birth of a nation, as a declaration of independence put an end to 450 years of foreign rule in East Timor.

"I declare the establishment of the Democratic Republic of East Timor as an independent and sovereign state," announced parliamentary speaker Francisco Guterres. "Glory to the heroes of our liberation."

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World leaders attending the ceremony included United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Clinton, who represented President Bush at the ceremony, said upon arriving that "freedom is precious and that your freedom was paid for by blood and sacrifice."

East Timor voted for independence from Indonesia in 1999 -- after a referendum campaign marred by violence from the Indonesian military and proxy militias they armed and supported -- and the territory has been under U.N. administration ever since.

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After the vote, vengeful soldiers and their militia allies launched a murderous rampage, killing hundreds and leaving much of the territory in ruins.

Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975 and annexed it the following year, a move never recognized by the international community. About 200,000 of its inhabitants are thought to have died under Indonesia's frequently brutal occupation. Before being ruled by Indonesia, East Timor was a Portuguese colony for more than 400 years.

President-elect Xanana Gusmao -- formerly the leader of the independence movement -- has urged his people to put the past behind them and to forge a new nation.

Speaking at the independence ceremony, Annan said he was proud of the partnership between the United Nations and East Timor.

"It's a day of pride for all of us," the secretary-general said. "You should be very proud of your achievement. That a small nation is able to inspire the world and be the focus of our attention is the highest tribute that I can pay."

A few minutes before midnight, the U.N. flag was lowered and then exactly at midnight, East Timor was declared independent and the nation's red, black, white and yellow flag was raised.

Annan then handed over control to Guterres, who administered the oath of office to President-elect Xanan Gusmao.

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In a show of force, Indonesia deployed six warships, several jetfighters and as many as 2,000 troops to provide security for Megawati's trip to East Timor.

The move sparked dismay among East Timor's leaders and the U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET).

"We are not angry, just puzzled with this ostentatious display of navy hardware that obviously is not a good public relations exercise for Indonesia in the eyes of the Timorese and major powers such as the U.S.," said East Timor's Foreign Minister Jose Ramos-Horta.

The Indonesian ships withdrew offshore after the protest.

East Timor, with a population of 700,000, more than half of whom are under 14, is one of the world's poorest nations. The World Bank estimates that the average East Timorese lives on just 55 cents a day, and that unemployment is close to 70 percent.

On Monday, Annan is scheduled to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the new East Timor government and an Independence Day parade. He will also dedicate a U.N. House for East Timor before returning to Indonesia. Content: 11002000 11006000 11012000 11014000

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