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Monday, May 3, 1999 Published at 07:34 GMT 08:34 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Freedom call for Timor rebel leader

Rising violence in East Timor threatensto undermine the autonomy vote

The Indonesian justice minister says he believes the jailed East Timorese independence leader Xanana Gusmao should be freed on amnesty so that he can make a greater contribution to peace efforts in the territory.

"I personally agree that Xanana should have clemency because the talks about East Timor have made progress and he himself has been very active," Justice Minister Muladi told reporters. "But an amnesty would be better because then he can be more active."

He said he not received any instruction from the government on Mr Gusmao's future.

Safety concerns

[ image: Mr Gusmao has been holding talks with a series of visiting diplomats]
Mr Gusmao has been holding talks with a series of visiting diplomats
But he said there were concerns about Mr Gusmao's safety if he was released. "The question is whether he can protect himself out there," he said.

The former guerrilla leader was captured 1992 and sentenced to life in prison for leading armed resistance to Indonesian rule in the former Portuguese colony.

His sentence was later reduced to 20 years.

In February this year, he was moved from Jakarta's high security Cipinang prison into house arrest to enable him to take part in negotiations on the future of East Timor.

At the time, the Indonesian government suggested that Mr Gusmao could be released once an agreement on autonomy for East Timor is finalised at the United Nations.

Autonomy vote

[ image: The former guerilla leader was moved to house arrest in February]
The former guerilla leader was moved to house arrest in February
That came a step closer last week when President BJ Habibie endorsed a United Nations-backed plan to hold a referendum on autonomy for East Timor.

Mr Habibie said that, based on the agreement between Portuguese and Indonesian diplomats, a ballot would take place in the territory on 8 August.

The news was welcomed by Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who held talks with the Indonesian president shortly before the announcement.

But community leaders in East Timor have called for the date to be brought forward, saying people were continuing to die every day as a result of spiralling violence between pro- and ant-independence militia.

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