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Rice in Jakarta for Talks on Region, Middle East, Avian Flu

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Indonesia to begin the Asian leg of a globe-circling overseas trip. She'll meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and other officials for talks on regional issues, the Middle East, and the threat of Avian influenza.

The Indonesia visit is the first by Rice since she became secretary of state last year, and she says it will highlight a growing U.S. relationship with a country that has made "giant strides" over the last several years.

In a talk with reporters en route to Indonesia, the secretary cited democratic elections, the settlement of separatist crises in East Timor and Aceh, and cooperation with the United States on terrorism and the threat of Avian flu.

She defended the Bush administration's decision last year to restore relations between the two countries militaries, which had been severed in the 1990s because of human rights abuses by Indonesian forces in East Timor.

She noted that President Yudhoyono himself was a graduate of the U.S. international military education program IMET, and said the United States can best influence the still-unfolding reform process by engaging with Indonesian military leaders:

"The military is an important institution in Indonesia," said Condoleezza Rice. "It's by no means completely made its reforms. But we believe those reforms are underway, and that we can have a more positive effect on the reforms by being connected to it.

Rice said she expects her meetings here to also cover global issues including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has long been of interest to Indonesia's majority Muslim population.

She said she hopes Indonesia will use its influence to help move the Islamic movement Hamas, winner of the Palestinian elections in January, to make a choice for peace by recognizing Israel's right to exist and accepting terms of the international Middle East Quartet's peace road map.

For its part, she said the United States will continue to push for statehood for the Palestinians, and to provide humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, perhaps even at increased levels, despite ruling out direct assistance to a Hamas-run Palestinian Authority:

"The United States remains absolutely committed to a two-state solution," she said. "It remains absolutely committed to a better life for the Palestinian people. I'll emphasize that we are looking to even increase our humanitarian assistance for the Palestinian people during this period of time, but that there are important choices that the Palestinians are facing concerning the road map and the Quartet requirements."

The secretary had come under criticism in the region for postponing a planned trip to Indonesia and Australia in January, when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke.

In an interview before leaving Washington, she said Asia remains a big priority for U.S. policy and noted she has already been to the region four times as secretary.

Rice will go to Australia later this week for a visit that will include a meeting of the U.S.-Australia-Japan Trilateral Strategic Dialogue.