Subject: AFP: East Timor election campaign underway

Agence France Presse -- English

March 23, 2007 Friday 6:10 AM GMT

East Timor election campaign underway

DILI, March 23 2007

Campaigning for troubled East Timor's April 9 presidential election officially got underway Friday, a UN official said, with prime minister and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta seen as favourite to win.

A total of eight candidates are standing in what will be the impoverished nation's first presidential poll since it declared independence in 2002 after 24 years of occupation by Indonesia.

Thousands of police officers have been mobilised, partly to secure polling stations and ballot boxes amid fears of unrest with a renegade soldier, Major Alfredo Reinado, still at large.

Ramos-Horta, who was an exiled spokesman for the resistance movement during occupation, said Friday that East Timor was still a fragile nation.

"Its institutions are still weak. Poverty is still widespread. Justice has not yet been served," he said in the capital, Dili.

Atul Khare, who heads the UN mission in East Timor, said campaigning could begin after a generally peaceful voter registration process,

He said it was essential the campaign, which lasts until Good Friday, April 6, was carried out "freely, fairly and without violence, without intimidation and without misuse of state resources."

The candidates seeking to replace incumbent President Xanana Gusmao, who is not standing, have signed a code of conduct designed to ensure the election is fair and peaceful.

The former Portuguese colony chose self-determination in a UN-administered referendum in 1999, but a wave of violence and destruction swept over it soon after.

Last year at least 37 people were killed and 150,000 were forced to flee in widespread unrest that led to the dispatch of an Australian-led international peacekeeping force.

Fears over the polls centre partly on Reinado, who is being hunted by the international security force and is said to have some popular support.

The United Nations said in New York this week that the number of internally displaced persons in Dili had risen by 8,000 since January to 37,000.

Thousands of people have fled their homes because of violence.

The UN mission in East Timor is concerned the sharp rise could cause food shortages, particularly of rice. The problem has been exacerbated by a locust infestation across an area of cropland.

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