By MATTHEW LEE, Associated Press
DILI, East Timor (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised East Timor on Thursday for holding fair elections this year, and said it was up to the government of Asia's newest and poorest nation to decide when and how to seek accountability for past violence during its struggle for independence.
Clinton said her visit, the first by a U.S. secretary of state to East Timor, was "a visible sign of our support for all that has been accomplished by the people of this nation." She and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao enjoyed coffee produced by a cooperative that helps supply the Starbucks chain.
At a press conference with Gusmao, Clinton congratulated East Timor on "three sets of free and fair elections this year, and a peaceful transfer of power to a new president, government and parliament."
There was some violence, including one death, following July's parliamentary polls. The top vote-getter, Gusmao's National Congress for the Reconstruction of East Timor, formed a coalition that excluded the runner-up Fretilin party, angering Fretilin supporters.
Clinton met Timorese officials as they prepared for the departure of the last of nearly 1,300 U.N. peacekeepers from the small, half-island nation by year's end.
A Portuguese colony for three centuries, East Timor voted in 1999 to end 24 years of Indonesian occupation that left more than 170,000 dead. Withdrawing Indonesian troops and proxy militias killed almost 1,500 people and destroyed much of the country's infrastructure.
Clinton said it is important for the people of East Timor to have accountability for abuses committed during the independence struggle, but added that the U.S. would "take the lead from the Timorese government" on how to achieve that.
"It is difficult to talk about this," Gusmao said, "when we need to have good relations with our closest neighbor." About 70 percent of East Timor's trade is with Indonesia.
"Democracy can only survive if we have development," he said.
Clinton announced new programs including $6.5 million to bring Timorese students to the United States to study. She is in the middle of an Asia trip with stops in the Cook Islands, Indonesia, China, Brunei and Russia's Far East.