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Rice Hails Moderation, Inclusiveness of Indonesian Society


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Tuesday praised Indonesia, the world's largest majority-Muslim country, as an example of social tolerance and inclusiveness. She held talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other top officials.

The visit was the first by the secretary since she took office more than a year ago, and she used to it heap praise on Indonesia for its moderate course and assistance in the fight against terrorism, a stance rewarded by the Bush administration last November with the restoration of military aid and training.

At a news conference with her Indonesian counterpart, Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda, Secretary Rice acknowledged that the United States' image in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region still suffers from public resentment over the invasion of Iraq and other aspects of the global war on terrorism.

But she also cited a lack of understanding about how much the United States respects Islam and Muslim countries, a fact underlined by the massive response by both the American government and public to the tsunami disaster in Indonesia at the end of 2004.

"The American people gave in huge amounts and huge numbers from their churches, and from their synagogues and from their mosques," she said. "And so I would hope that while some of the policies that we pursue may not always be popular, that there is an understanding that we have a deep and abiding respect for the Indonesian people, for their various faiths, and a desire to see this great democracy prosper."

Both the secretary and her Indonesian counterpart said their meeting had been productive and covered growing military ties.

But Rice declined to say whether the United States would accede to Indonesian demands for direct access to Hambali, the alleged mastermind of the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali that killed more than 200 people, mainly foreign tourists:

"On counter-terrorism cooperation, including with Hambali, we are cooperating, we are sharing information and we will continue that cooperation and discussions of how we can best make certain that we are using this opportunity to bolster our counter-terrorism operations and efforts," she added.

Hambali, an Indonesian, has been held in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location since his arrest in Thailand in 2003.

The secretary began her day with a visit to an Islamic school or Madrassa in central Jakarta, where U.S. aid has helped improve the curriculum and quality of teaching under a five-year $157 million assistance program announced by President Bush in 2004.

She announced a further $8.5 million U.S. grant to upgrade childrens' programming on Indonesian public television.

She had a meeting later in the day with President Yudhoyono, the nation's first popularly elected leader following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998.

A U.S. spokesman said they discussed, among other things, efforts to control the spread of avian flu and the human rights situation in Burma. Rice told her news conference that democracies like the U.S. and Indonesia cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the plight of those who live under oppression in Burma.

She is to cap her two-day visit to Indonesia Wednesday with a policy speech in Jakarta before flying on to Sydney for regional security talks with her Australian and Japanese counterparts.