South African President Nelson Mandela called on Indonesia Wednesday to free jailed East Timorese rebel leader Xanana Gusmao, saying his release was essential to resolve the conflict in the former Portuguese colony.
Speaking to reports after holding talks on East Timor with Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, Mandela said he had also recommended Gusmao's release in a letter to Indonesian President Suharto earlier this month in which he asked to meet the jailed leader.
'We can never normalise the situation in East Timor unless all political leaders, including Mr Gusmao, are freed,' Mandela said. 'They are the ones who must bring about a solution.'
The South African leader met Gusmao at Jakarta's state guesthouse on July 15 with the blessing of Suharto.
'I saw (Gusmao) and was struck by his outstanding qualities,' Mandela said. He added that discussions he had in Jakarta with Suharto were 'very fruitful and constructive. I had the impression he gave a sympathetic view,' Mandela said.
Mandela said that his talks with Gusmao and other East Timorese leaders was part of an initiative launched by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and not a separate bid to try to resolve the conflict.
Mandela would not reveal the content of his talks with Sampaio, saying they are 'sensitive matters involving heads of state and leaders of East Timor. I must first see the leaders of East Timor, both inside and outside (the country),' he said.
'We should have an attempt to have the leaders of both sides coming together so they can discuss how the process should go,' Mandela said. 'The role of Portugal is pivotal not only because it was the former administrator ...but for what it has been doing for East Timor since 1975.'
Sampaio said his meeting with Mandela was 'very important'. It was in the interests of Portugal, Sampaio added, 'to work to give the people of East Timor a chance to decide on their future. This is our international responsibility.'
Mandela also met last week with fellow Nobel Prize laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, a leading spokesman for East Timorese independence. He said Wednesday his talks with Ramos-Horta had given him a greater insight into the problem.
Mandela added that he was willing to meet all the leaders of East Timor, including Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo -who has already declined Mandela's invitation to come to South Africa.
Note: Sources close to the issue say that Bishop Belo has NOT declined President Mandela's invitation but has said he is unable to go at present because of diocesan duties.