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Byline: Kevin Costelloe Associated Press

Driven to the wall by Indonesia's economic crash and a week of deadly rioting, a tired and drawn President Suharto resigned today, ending 32 years as the autocratic head of the world's fourth-most-populous nation.

Suharto asked forgiveness for ``any mistakes and shortcomings on my part'' in a televised nationwide address.

Vice President Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie was immediately sworn in as the new president.

In a surprise move, Suharto said Habibie would serve out the remaining presidential term, which runs until 2003. There was no mention of a transitional government and elections by the end of the year, though both had been expected to be announced today.

Suharto, with senior aides around him, spoke in a slow and halting voice. ``In this connection, if there are any mistakes and shortcomings on my part, I ask the people of Indonesia to forgive me,'' he said.

Just a few days ago, such a statement would have been unthinkable from a powerful, iron-fisted leader who has ruled for so long. A wave of unrest killed more than 500 people last week in Jakarta alone.

Though Habibie has many years of experience in the worlds of business and technology, he lacks the political experience that many say is needed to rule Indonesia. And it was not immediately clear how Indonesia's protesters would react to the appointment of one of Suharto's closest allies.

Immediately after the swearing-in, Gen. Wiranto, the armed forces commander, said the army supports the transition of power from Suharto to Habibie.

Wiranto asked the Indonesian people to remain calm.

``The armed forces will take part in preventing any irregularities . . . that could threaten the nation,'' he said in a nationwide address, referring to the armed forces' determination to prevent another outbreak of violence.

``Welcome the new government,'' the nation's leading newspaper, Kompas, said in a front-page headline this morning, even before Suharto's expected announcement.

A retired five-star army general and Asia's longest-serving ruler, Suharto, 76, guided the nation of 210 million people through unprecedented prosperity. Yet his people blamed him for the country's sudden, painful economic and social slide set off by the 1997 Asian economic crisis.

Widespread rioting turned bloody when police shot dead several students at an anti-government protest May 12. In the following days, rioters looted and set fire to cars, banks and shopping malls.

The violence left more than 500 people dead and caused at least $1 billion in damage in Jakarta alone, while also spreading to dozens of towns and cities across Indonesia.

Student protesters ransacked Parliament, vowing not to leave the marble halls until Suharto resigned.

Born 400 miles east of Jakarta near Yogyakarta, Suharto is the son of a poor rice farmer. He began his military training in 1940 and joined the revolutionary army that fought Dutch attempts to reclaim the archipelago after Indonesia declared its independence in 1945.

Suharto, who was appointed to a seventh consecutive term in March, came to power after crushing an abortive leftist coup in 1965. Backed by fellow military officers, he reined in and then replaced Indonesia's founding President Sukarno in 1967.

He turned around a country that had been in social and political chaos and on the brink of economic ruin, and his supporters praise him for creating stability and reducing poverty.

His critics say he lorded over a system riddled with corruption, nepotism and collusion, and they condemn him for suppressing dissent, ignoring human rights and enriching his six multimillionaire children as well as other relatives and friends.

Indonesia has been the biggest victim of a financial crisis that began in East Asia last year, forcing Indonesia, South Korea and Thailand to accept painful economic reforms and bailouts from the International Monetary Fund.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 21, 1998

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