DILI, East Timor -- After 23 years of brutal rule, Jakarta has agreed to give the people of East Timor what many had long fought for -- a vote on their future -- but there was little celebration in the troubled territory on Friday.
Residents in the restive province cautiously welcomed the news from New York. Pro-independence leaders were sceptical and pro-Jakarta loyalists feared an upsurge in bloodshed.In U.N.-sponsored talks with Portugal, Jakarta cast aside fears of encouraging other rebellious provinces and agreed to let the East Timorese vote on whether to accept an offer of enhanced autonomy within Indonesia.
Rejection could open the way for independence -- an outcome closely eyed by separatist groups around the diverse archipelago.
Indonesia invaded the former Portuguese colony in 1975 and annexed it the following year, a move not recognized by the United Nations.
Its reputation blackened by the East Timor saga and its resources stretched to breaking by mounting civil unrest around the country, Jakarta in January abruptly dropped its blanket opposition to independence.
However, the government still believes autonomy is the best solution for the eastern half of Timor island.
It has also rejected any suggestion that freeing East Timor would set a precedent for restive provinces such as Aceh in the West and Irian Jaya in the East, where separatist movements have long fought central rule.
Jailed rebel leader Xanana Gusmao welcomed a vote, but said more details were needed.
"It's what we've been looking for -- a consultation process that is democratic," he told reporters.
"But we could not yet know anything about it because we don't know the details of the mechanism."