The Presidential Years

The government of Indonesia has reacted cautiously to a call by South African President Nelson Mandela to release East Timorese resistance leader Xanana Gusmao from jail.

President Mandela said on Wednesday he had written to Indonesian President Suharto to recommend freedom for Gusmao.

On Thursday Jakarta said it had received no letter yet.

Xanana Gusmao was jailed in 1994 for plotting against Suharto's government, but supporters of East Timor's struggle for independence say he was jailed simply to silence him.

Hard on the heels of an unprecedented meeting with Xanana Gusmao two weeks ago, Nelson Mandela met with the president of Portugal, Jorge Sampaio, the former colonial which once ruled East Timor.

At a news conference in Johannesburg he stressed the importance of freedom for Gusmao.

SOUNDBITE: (English)

"You will understand that we can never normalise the situation in East Timor unless all the political leaders including Mr. Gusmao are free".

SUPER CAPTION: Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa

Indonesia has been fighting pro-independence rebels since it invaded East Timor in 1975.

Riots flare up regularly. These demonstrations took place in 1994, coinciding with a meeting of Asia Pacific leaders in Indonesia.

UPSOUND:: Viva Xanana! Viva Xanana!

Despite his incarceration, Gusmao is still considered the spiritual and moral leader of the resistance forces in East Timor.

Two weeks ago President Mandela was granted permission by Indonesian President Suharto to visit Gusmao.

SOUNDBITE: (English)

"I also asked to see Xanana Gusmao, the leader of the Revolutionary Front for the total liberation of East Timor. I saw him. I was struck by his outstanding qualities, his commitment to principles."

SUPER CAPTION: Nelson Mandela, President of South Africa

Following that meeting Mandela said he wrote to Jakarta, believing that freedom for Gusmao would advance the peace process between Indonesia and the annexed territory.

SOUNDBITE: (English)

"Having met Mr. Xanana Gusmao, who everyone knows is in jail in Jakarta, he is a very important element in this two decade old struggle to achieve the rights of the people of East Timor to self determination and I must thank with great respect, President Mandela for his initiative."

SUPER CAPTION: Jorge Sampaio, President of Portugal

In Indonesia on Thursday, foreign Minister Ali Alatas said Mandela's proposal to release Gusmao would have to be judged on whether it was part of a comprehensive or partial settlement now being sought through long-running UN-sponsored talks between Portugal and Indonesia.


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