East Timor holds run-off vote for new president

Two former guerrilla leaders vied for East Timor's presidency Monday, each hoping to help steer the region's newest and poorest nation after U.N. peacekeeping troops begin their planned withdrawal later this year.

Taur Matan Ruak appeared headed for an easy victory over Francisco "Lu Olo" Guterres in the run-off vote, according to an early quick count.

Incumbent Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, bowed out last month following a poor showing in the first round.

East Timor, a half island nation of 1.1 million people, voted overwhelmingly in 1999 to end 24 years of brutal Indonesia occupation that had left more than 170,000 dead.

When withdrawing soldiers and proxy militias went on a rampage, killing another 1,500 people and destroying much of the infrastructure, the international community jumped in to help, deploying U.N. peacekeepers and pouring in billions of dollars.

But the road to democracy has been anything but easy, with gang violence and splits in the army and police turning deadly several times and, six years ago, leading to the collapse of the government.

While the role of president is largely ceremonial, the winner has the ability, like Ramos-Horta did, to act as a moral compass.

He will do so at a crucial time.

If parliamentary elections that follow on July 7 are peaceful, discussions will begin about the withdrawal of 400 international peacekeepers still deployed in the country, Australian Defense Minister Stephen Smith said recently.

They could start heading home before the end of the year.

Voting was largely peaceful Monday, with only a few reported incidents, a big improvement from the last polls.

"That in itself is good news and has to be regarded as a consolidation of the democratic process," said Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic familiar with East Timor politics.

The United States congratulated East Timor for the successful conduct of a "peaceful and orderly" election.

"So far the information available to us suggests that the election was free and fair," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told a news briefing in Washington.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also congratulated the people of East Timor for displaying "once again their commitment to stability, democracy and national unity," his deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey said at U.N. headquarters in New York.

Official results are not expected until Wednesday.

But with 75 percent of the ballots tallied in a quick count, Ruak. a former chief of the guerrilla forces, had nearly 61 percent, according to the National Election Commission.

That means his victory is all but assured.

"I'm ready to lead," said Ruak, 55, who ran as an independent but had strong backing from Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao. "But I appeal to the great people of our country to accept the result whatever it is. ... Let's show the world that we are civilized and ready to promote our own democracy with dignity."

Lu Olo, a 57-year-old former guerrilla commander representing the opposition Fretilin party, had 39 percent in the quick count.

He, too, earlier said whatever the result, he would accept it.

Justino Menezes, who was among more than 700,000 eligible voters, said he wanted most to see his country develop economically.

Many people earn less than 50 cents a day. Roads are still in disrepair. There is little access to clean water or health services. And the capital is littered with abandoned, burned-out buildings where the homeless squat.

"It's time to move forward," said Menezes, a 61-year-old farmer. "And to move forward without fear."


Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.