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East Timor, the world's youngest country, joins the United Nations
Fri Sep 27,10:28 AM ET

UNITED NATIONS - East Timor, the world's youngest country, formally joined the United Nations on Friday as its 191st member state.

Diplomats from around the world applauded, rather than formally voted, to accept the tiny Southeast Asian nation, which became independent on May 20 after centuries of Portuguese rule followed by 24 years of often brutal occupation by Indonesia.

Xanana Gusmao, the former Indonesian territory's first president, was welcomed at a ceremony in the General Assembly Hall by representatives of the other 190 member-nations and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Later, Gusmao, a 55-year-old poet and former guerrilla fighter who spent seven years in jail and under house arrest, was to join Annan at the hoisting of the new member-nation's flag as its national anthem was played on a flute.

Under Annan, the United Nations took over the administration of East Timor in 1999 after its people voted overwhelmingly for independence from Indonesia in a U.N.-sponsored referendum.

The vote touched off a wave of violence by the Indonesian military and its militia supporters that destroyed much of East Timor.

East Timor's joy at joining the world body after centuries of occupation, however, remains tempered by the challenges ahead: East Timor is among the world's poorest nations, and sovereignty will mean little unless living standards can be raised.

The country's fragile peace will likely hold if the international community continues to provide assistance and not abandon the country, East Timor's foreign minister told a gathering in New York on Wednesday.

Jose Ramos-Horta, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1996, said more than 45 percent of East Timor's 850,000 people were desperately poor and more than 50 percent of the population was under 20 years of age, and in need of education and jobs. He identified the setting up of a legal system right down to prisons as critical to his country's progress.

The plebiscite that led to independence was followed by an orgy of violence when Indonesia-backed militias slaughtered hundreds of people and burned down large parts of the capital, Dili, before an international peacekeeping force restored order.
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