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East Timor Votes

Election officials on Friday began counting the large number of votes cast in East Timor's first free election — balloting seen as a historic step toward nationhood for the former Indonesian territory.

International monitors hailed the Thursday's vote as a success and officials estimated voter turnout at 93 percent.

"The boxes were moved last night to the counting centers, and they have now started the process of opening them," U.N. spokeswoman Barbara Reis said Friday. Unofficial results are expected to be announced next week.

On Thursday, women nursed babies held in shoulder slings and people joked with U.N. monitors as they waited in long lines to vote. Vendors sold sweets and cold juices to crowds of voters, who were waiting to chose an assembly that will write the fledgling nation's constitution.

"The constitution to be drafted by the assembly represents an extremely important step in the process toward the formation of a self-determined and democratic government," U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington on Thursday.

The vote moved East Timor nearer full nationhood after three centuries of Portuguese colonial rule, 24 years of Indonesian occupation, and two years of transitional U.N. administration. A head of state will be election next April and the 88-member assembly will become the nation's first parliament.

"Aug. 30, 2001 will be remembered in the history of East Timor as a demonstration of the capacity of its people to ... confront their differences in the context of a multiparty democracy," said chief U.N. electoral officer Carlos Valenzuela.

There was little doubt the winner would be the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor, which led the country's independence struggle. Charismatic resistance leader Xanana Gusmao is expected to become the Asian nation's head of state after the constitution is adopted.

There had been fears of clashes between supporters of the 16 political parties competing, but reports said no incidents marred the ballot.

"There was a kind of determination. But it was without tension," said James Kelly, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs.

Kelly was among dozens of diplomats and 800 monitors on hand to ensure that voting took place without intimidation.

"Everything went off so well, it was scary," said Saskia Heinz, a Dutch official at a polling station in Dili.

The only problems reported were overcrowding at some polling stations and minor glitches such as malfunctioning equipment and missing keys.

Thursday's vote came two years to the day after four-fifths of East Timorese voted to end Indonesia's bloody occupation of their half-island province in a U.N.-sponsored referendum. Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975, after Portuguese rule collapsed.

The Indonesian army and paramilitary groups reacted to the 1999 vote by going on a rampage of murder, burning and destruction in which hundreds of civilian were killed and much of East Timor was devastated.

"We struggled for more than 24 years for independence," said Mari Alkatiri, who is tipped to become the first prime minister. "We've learned the lesson that even small people have a voice."

In Liquica, a town 25 miles east of Dili, thousands of people lined up before polling stations opened at 7 a.m. Officials said almost all its 3,900 registered voters had cast their ballots by midday.

The town gained notoriety before the 1999 referendum when Indonesian police and members of a militia gang known as Red and White Iron hacked to death more than 50 people inside the main church.

On Thursday, U.N. peacekeepers and townspeople joked as they waited in the scorching sun. Some voters used umbrellas or wide-brimmed hats to block the sun, others shielded their faces with the large UN voter information sheets.

"This sure ain't like any election I've ever seen back home," said Roger Oglesbee, a U.N. policeman from Vanwert, Ohio.

By SLOBODAN LEKIC
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