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East Timor Elects Constituent Assembly - 2001-08-30

In East Timor, a large number of voters have turned out Thursday to participate in the territory's first elections since separating from Indonesia two years ago. The history-making voting will take the former Portuguese colony one step closer to full independence.

Across East Timor, lines of voters snaked in front of polling stations well before daybreak. U.N. officials say by the end of the day, some 95 percent of the more than 400,000 eligible voters will have cast their ballots to choose a constituent assembly.

Sixteen political parties and more than 1,000 candidates are vying for seats in the 88-member assembly. The body will draw up a constitution that will pave the way for a presidential election, and ultimately independence for East Timor, next year.

Erico de Santos was one of the first to vote at a polling station in Liquica. Exactly two years ago, the town much like the rest of East Timor was burnt to the ground by angry militias opposed to a U.N.-sponsored referendum that overwhelmingly rejected Indonesian rule and embraced independence. The United Nations arrived to restore order and has been administering the half-island territory ever since.

Mr. De Santos says he is happy today that he is being allowed to participate in the building of a new nation through free elections. Freedom, he says, is something the East Timorese have had little of during its long and bitter history.

When the Portuguese withdrew in 1975 ending centuries of colonial rule, Indonesia forcibly annexed East Timor a year later. More than 200,000 people are believed to have died in the fighting, famine and disease that followed over the years.

Despite fears of pro-Indonesian militia violence Thursday, there have been no reports of trouble at the polls. Formal results are expected to be announced in about one week.