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East timor debut

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Nation of East Timor debuts on world stage

By Joe Havely
CNN Hong Kong

DILI, East Timor (CNN) --A new flag is flying over East Timor as the people of the world's newest nation celebrate their independence.

At the stroke of midnight Sunday, the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan formally ended the world body's authority over the territory, handing over power to the country's first democratically elected government.

It was, he said, "a day of pride" for the international community, adding "never before has the world united with such firm resolve to help one small nation establish itself."

He said the world would remain committed to aiding East Timor through its first years of independence and concluded with the cry "Viva Timor Leste!", "Long live East Timor!"

A few minutes later-- a few minutes behind schedule, but no-one seemed to mind -- the red, gold and black lone star flag of East Timor slowly made its way up the flag pole and loud cheers erupted from the crowd.

For most of the estimated 200,000-strong crowd packed into a site some 10 kilometers outside the capital, Dili, it was the moment they had been waiting to see.

"We have been waiting for this for more than 20 years," said 40 year-old Antonio who had traveled all day from his home in the town of Baucau just to see the ceremony.

"We love to see it and that's why I am here, to see the flag to be raised."

The declaration of independence was followed by the swearing in of East Timor's first president, former guerrilla leader Xanana Gusmao.

The event marked the peak of several hours of ceremony, beginning with a Roman Catholic mass at which the new nation's flag was blessed and followed by performances of song and dance.

It was a chance for a people repressed for so many years to assert their cultural identity.

The event ended with a massive fireworks display, donated by the Thai and Chinese governments.

Earlier, as the evening's ceremonies began, images of East Timor's long and bloody struggle for independence from Indonesia were broadcast to the crowd on huge TV screens.

Many broke into tears as they saw the pictures, but let out loud cheers and rounds of applause when pictures of Gusmao appeared on screen.

For the vast majority of East Timorese he is the hero of the resistance struggle -- the main reason some 80 percent voted for him in last month's presidential election.

Other loud cheers were directed at a more surprising figure -- that of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri who joined several other current and former national leaders and representatives of some 90 nations attending the independence ceremony.

Indonesia ruled East Timor with an iron fist after it invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975.

In the following 24 years some 200,000 people -- about one quarter of the 1975 population -- were killed or died from famine.

Despite such a traumatic past, East Timor's new leaders have made it clear, largely because of geographical fact, that they must work to build a friendly relations with Indonesia if East Timor is to have a secure future.

Megawati was personally invited to attend the ceremony by Gusmao himself and he escorted her onto the stage at the start of independence proceedings.

It was an extraordinary gesture of forgiveness from a man who spent many years of his life leading the fight against Indonesian rule.

On the way to the independence ceremony Megawati stopped briefly at an Indonesian military cemetery to pay her respects and lay a wreath.

Many of those buried in the cemetery were killed in the struggle with Gusmao's Falintil guerrillas.

Shortly afterwards, arriving on stage with Gusmao she was greeted by loud applause from the crowd -- a welcome that was repeated when the new president spoke to her in his inaugural address.

Speaking to her as the leader of a "brotherly" country, he said the difficult relations between the two peoples was "a result of an historical mistake, which now belongs to history and to the past."

He said their were "strong ties of friendship between East Timor and Indonesia" and those would help overcome the remaining opposition to warmer relations among certain groups on both sides of the border.

Among the crowd watching events, the overwhelming feeling was that it was right for Megawati to be there.

"I am glad she is here," said one woman, "but it also makes me sad to see her because it reminds me of the past."

Twenty-one-year old student Joao Verdreil was happy to welcome Megawati to a free East Timor.

Time for reflection
"I think it's good that Mega to come," he said using the Indonesian leader's popular nickname.

"As a small country we need Indonesia more than Indonesia needs us. But her being here means she has accepted our independence and wants to have good relations -- it's a kind of diplomacy."

Concluding his inaugural speech Gusmao alluded to the massive economic and social challenges facing what is not only the world's newest nation, but also one of its poorest.

"Our independence will have no value," he said, "if all the people in Timor Lorasa'e (East Timor) continue to live in poverty and continue to suffer all kinds of difficulties."

Most East Timorese say they do not expect their lives to transform overnight as a result of independence, but as they partied into the night many had high hopes that if they can work together they can build a better future.

For 26-year-old Domingas Bui, the coming of independence was a time to reflect on the violence of the past and to celebrate her country's new-found freedom.

"I feel free tonight, no more fear," she said.

"It's so different from before -- for me independence means freedom from fear."

Challenges ahead
The fledgling state faces many challenges, but it already has locked in $440 million in international aid to carry it through the next three years.

Some $81 million will come from the Trust Fund for East Timor and the United Nations Mission of Support in East Timor, with an additional $360 million pledged by governments and international aid agencies in a May 15 meeting at the United Nations.

The new country has a 60 percent illiteracy rate and a $340 per capita gross national product. Its citizens have an average life expectancy of 57 years, according to the East Timor Action Group.

Annan addressed the challenges that lie ahead for the East Timorese before the handover.

"Today, East Timor is ready to join the family of nations as a free and democratic country," Annan said.

"But democracy and development need nurturing, by the East Timorese themselves and by the international community.

"The challenge continues, and we must all remain focused on enabling the East Timorese people to feel a steady improvement in their daily lives."

U.N. presence
The United Nations will scale down its presence in East Timor, providing mostly administrative support for the next year, but it also will provide interim police and security while the country develops its internal and external security forces.

The civilian police component initially will number around 1,250, while the military presence will be around 5,000 troops, including 120 military observers.

On Monday, six stamps will go on sale to mark East Timor's independence. The U.N. Postal Administration issued the stamps.

The Australian government also is pitching in, having already presented the East Timorese government with 2 million postage stamps it designed and printed to be sold on the island and in Australia, by mail order and over the Internet.

Proceeds of the stamp sales will go to the East Timorese government.

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