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East Timorese flock to polls in autonomy ballot.

Hundreds of thousands of East Timorese flock to polls in UN- supervised autonomy ballot.

In what United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan described as an expression of "their will as to their future," hundreds of thousands of East Timorese flocked to the polls Monday to choose between remaining a part of Indonesia or becoming independent.

Despite persistent violence and intimidation in the days leading up to the vote, UN officials said over 90 per cent of the more than 450,000 registered voters had cast their ballots "in a calm and dignified manner" at the 200 polling stations throughout the territory.

The Secretary-General said the polling proceeded smoothly, a "testament to the determination and patience of the voters, despite some intimidation by militias outside some polling stations."

Sporadic incidents and threats of violence led to seven of the polling stations being closed for periods ranging from 30 minutes to three hours, UN officials said.

Despite the "deplorable" murder today of one East Timorese staff member with the UN mission, the Secretary-General paid tribute to the efforts of the Indonesian authorities and police, stressing that the role of the security forces will be even more important as the sealed ballot boxes are transported to the central counting station in Dili and the count begins.

"During this period, I call upon all East Timorese groups to exercise the utmost restraint and patience, to ensure that the will of the East Timorese people may be fully heard," he said. The results of the voting should be known in about a week.

On Sunday, the Secretary-General issued an appeal to all sides to respect the democratic process and urged that steps be taken to control the illegal activities of armed factions.

"Tomorrow's popular consultation is a unique opportunity to settle a long-running dispute by peaceful means," Mr. Annan said. "It is essential that the people of East Timor be able to vote in conditions free of intimidation and violence."

Later, East Timorese pro-autonomy and pro-independence forces pledged to lay down their weapons and conduct mutual visits to sites designated for arms storage. The Indonesian police, who under the agreement authorizing the autonomy vote have responsibility for maintaining peace, also agreed to provide security and to arrest those carrying weapons outside designated areas.

ENDS

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