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Rice seeks to boost ties with Indonesia on trip

Written by: Staff

JAKARTA, Mar 14 (Reuters) US. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hailed Indonesia as a vibrant democracy on Tuesday, seeking to cement anti-terrorism cooperation and political ties with the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Rice will meet President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and foreign and economics ministers. Yudhoyono, a former general with U.S. training, became Indonesia's first directly elected president in 2004 on a strong security platform.

''This is a state that has really made giant strides over the last several years and the United States has been able to significantly change the nature of the relationship,'' Rice told reporters travelling with her to Jakarta.

The end of autocratic President Suharto's 32-year rule in 1998 and social unrest allowed democracy to flourish in Indonesia.

Last November, the United States restored military ties with Indonesia as a reward for cooperation against al Qaeda-linked militants and cited reforms in the military and efforts by the government to improve its human rights record.

LEVERAGE But some human rights groups say progress in reforming the military and police has been too slow and that the United States has not paid enough attention to abuses committed by the military, losing important leverage to push for change.

Before U.S. President George W. Bush's administration provided any assistance to the Indonesian military, it should demand to see evidence of real reform, said Lisa Misol of the New York-based Human Rights Watch group.

''(Rice) also should use her trip to announce that the U.S.

will refuse to provide them with lethal weapons and will insist on robust monitoring of whatever aid it sends,'' said Misol.

Rice, due to give a speech on democracy on Wednesday before going on to Australia, dismissed criticism Washington had moved too quickly to restore military relations.

She said it was a better strategy for the United States to have contact with the Indonesian military than to isolate it.

The United States sees Indonesia as a voice of moderation in the Islamic world and Rice hopes it might have some influence in the Middle East, particularly over the militant group Hamas, which won Palestinian elections in January.

''I would ask them to continue to influence those in the Palestinian territories that the choice has to be for peace,'' said Rice.

Her visit to Indonesia replaces one cancelled in January after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a major stroke. She said then the situation in the Middle East was too unsettled for her to be far from Washington.

In the past few weeks there have been large anti-American demonstrations in Indonesia, but Rice said she was not concerned about any demonstrations during her visit, adding that such protests showed democracy was working.

One area where Rice is likely to face prickly questions will be Jakarta's demand for direct access to Indonesian militant Hambali, who has been held by the Americans since 2003.

Hambali is suspected to be the mastermind behind the bombings on Indonesia's holiday island of Bali in 2002 in which more than 200 people were killed.

Reuters SK VP0530

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