The world's most popular dissident-turned-national-leader, Nelson Mandela, has begun a diplomatic campaign to settle one of the most intractable conflicts in Asia.
The South African president has thrown his prestige and apparent neutrality into solving the sticky problem of tiny East Timor, the largely Roman Catholic, former Portuguese colony taken by force in 1975 by mainly Muslim Indonesia.
Last month, Mr. Mandela, tapping his experience as a former jailed dissident who negotiated an end to South Africa's white rule, was able to meet East Timor's most famous jailed dissident, Xanana Gusmo, in Jakarta.
The former guerrilla commander, whose nom de guerre is Xanana, was called out of Cipinang prison quadrangle, where he was playing football, and told that a car was waiting to take him to a meeting with the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize-winner. Xanana is serving a 20-year prison sentence for subversion, after his capture in 1992.
Mandela is on good terms with Indonesian President Suharto, the former Army general who oversaw the takeover of East Timor and who has ruled Indonesia for nearly three decades. Mr. Suharto gave financial support to the Mandela's African National Congress in the early 1990s.
On the other hand, the common bond between the jailed Timorese leader and Mandela, who spent decades in Robben Island prison, was a forceful factor in their encounter. The content of their talks remains a well-guarded secret, as a condition of ongoing negotiations.
But those close to the situation offer two views of the unusual moves.
The orthodox view is that Suharto is wilting under international pressure and wishes Mandela to help extricate him from East Timor, which has become a negative factor in Indonesian politics, as the clamor for democracy rises.
The second is that Mandela is acting as a Trojan horse for Suharto, using his prestige to coax Xanana to accept a compromise solution of regional autonomy for East Timor under Indonesian sovereignty.
This formula is described in diplomatic circles here as "the Puerto Rico solution," and would involve a moratorium on the question of Portuguese vs. Indonesian sovereignty for a period of five to six years.
Mandela has made it plain he will not usurp the official United Nations negotiations between Portugal and Indonesia. The UN has never recognized Indonesia's sovereignty over East Timor, and considers Portugal the administering power, but it has likewise failed in over two decades of negotiations to break the impasse. Indonesia officially annexed East Timor in 1976.
Mandela has also had talks with Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio.
Although stories were circulating that Mandela had asked Suharto for the release of Gusmo, he had not done so, but sent a letter to this effect to Jakarta on his return.
Here, matters became complicated: The content of the letter was published in the Portuguese weekly Expresso before it reached Suharto, which led to vehement protest from Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas. The South Africans said it had been leaked by Portuguese ambassador to South Africa, Vasco Valente, who had accidentally been sent the original letter for Suharto. He agreed he had been sent the wrong copy, but said he opened it without looking at the address, and denied leaking it.
Sources close to the South Africans said he had broken the presidential seal on the letter to Suharto, which could be no accident.
Optimistic about the Mandela initiative on his return to Portugal, Mr. Sampaio was flabbergasted to hear that the South Africans were expelling his ambassador. In Jakarta, the foreign minister praised the move. The Portuguese Foreign Ministry protested that the South Africans were being misled by Indonesian propaganda, and called in Pretoria's Lisbon Ambassador Kingley Makubela for a dressing-down, but said they would not reciprocate the expulsion, in the interests of a solution.
The story strikes a false note. Mr. Alatas believes the Portuguese government's refusal to admit that it botched the decolonization of East Timor contributed to the tragedy in which thousands have perished since 1975 and is an obstacle to a solution. One reading is that the incident was set up as a ritual humiliation demanded by Indonesia.
At whatever cost, the impasse seems to be broken. On Aug. 1 Indonesian State Secretartiat Minister Murdiano said Jakarta is considering Xanana's release. But on Aug. 16, Indonesian Justice Minister Utoyo Usman said Xanana would not be released soon, although he might be freed after 2000. His jail term, however, was reduced by three months.
A visit by Suharto to South Africa is tentatively set for November, and Mandela hopes to meet the United National special representative for East Timor, Jamseed Marker, later this month.