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Popular Leader Sweeps East Timor Election

BY Admin  April 16, 2002 at 7:00 PM EDT

Xanana Gusmao picked up nearly 80 percent of the vote with 89 percent of votes counted, the country’s Independent Electoral Commission said Tuesday. Gusmao led the territory’s battle for independence from Indonesia for decades.

The new president will be inaugurated on May 20, when the territory’s U.N. administrators hand over control to the East Timorese. The new country is expected to adopt a parliamentary-style government, in which Gusmao’s duties are expected to be largely symbolic.

A runaway favorite in the months before the election, Gusmao was widely expected to win the presidential vote. His sole competition, fellow independence leader Francisco Xavier do Amaral, said he expected to lose, but ran to give voters a choice.

The 56-year-old Gusmao joined East Timor’s independence movement in 1974, when the territory was still a Portuguese colony. The East Timorese began to form their own government when Portugal withdrew from the area in 1975, but that effort was snuffed out only days later when neighboring Indonesia invaded, and the territory came under the control of dictator Suharto.

Gusmao and others mounted heavy resistance throughout Indonesia’s occupation of the area. He was captured in 1992 and held in Indonesia for the next seven years. During that time, Suharto’s power waned, leading to his ouster in 1998.

New Indonesian President B.J. Habibie offered East Timor a chance to choose its destiny in August 1999, but the territory’s independence referendum had a deadly outcome. After the East Timorese chose to secede from Indonesia, pro-Jakarta militants stormed the countryside, killing 1,000 people and forcing 250,000 from their homes.

Following the independence referendum, Indonesia freed Gusmao and in October 1999 he returned to a devastated East Timor. Since then, a U.N.-administered government has worked to rebuild the territory’s shattered infrastructure and move it toward full independence.

Last month, the U.N. announced some 198,000 refugees have returned to East Timor, leaving an estimated 60,000 in camps in Indonesian-controlled West Timor. The U.N. also said it will decrease its peacekeeping staff to 5,000 and its civilian staff to 100 once the new East Timorese government takes charge.