East Timor declared independent early Monday in a joyous ceremony in the capital of Dili, and became the newest country in the world in the 21st century.
The country came into being with a solemn declaration of independence by parliamentary speaker Fransisco Guterres following a speech by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
The East Timorese celebrated their country's formal independence with a gala of traditional East Timor music, songs, dances and drum-beating performances to an audience of about 200,000 people in central Dili, capital of the world's youngest nation.
The celebrations, which were preceded with an open air mass hosted by East Timor Bishop Carlos Felipe Ximenes Belo, also a Nobel laureate in peace in 1996, involved more than 3,000 artists and performers including hundreds of children in festive costumes singing and dancing to the tune of traditional East Timor folk songs on the stage.
At the climax of the celebrations, East Timor Speaker of the National Assembly Francisco Guterres (Lu Olo) officially declared to the world that East Timor was independent.
"I declare the establishment of the Democratic Republic of East Timor as an independent and sovereign state," Guterres said. "Glory to the heroes of our liberation."
Guterres' declaration was preceded with a solemn ceremony at which the blue U.N. flag was slowly lowered from the mast, which was handed over to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan under the escort of six soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping forces, ending two and a half years of U.N. Transitional Administration in East Timor.
Afterwards, the national flag of East Timor was raised to the tune of the national anthem of an independent East Timor.
Minutes before the U.N. flag was lowered, U.N. chief Annan delivered a brief speech, in which he urged the East Timorese to remain unified after their full independence.
He said the determination of the East Timorese has ensured the success of their cause of freedom and independence.
He said he is proud of the courage and perseverance the East Timorese have shown on their path to independence.
"I salute you -- people of East Timor -- for the courage and perseverance you have shown," Annan told the joyful crowd.
"Yours has not been an easy path to independence," Annan said. "You should be very proud of your achievement. That a small nation is able to inspire the world and be the focus of our attention is the highest tribute that I can pay."
"You have stepped into a new era in your history, as an independent nation," for their identity as an independent people will be recognized by the whole world, Annan said.
However, Annan cautioned the East Timorese against trials and challenges lying ahead.
"Independence is not an end. It is the beginning of self-rule, which requires compromise, discipline, unity and resolve," Annan said.
"While you have succeeded in one challenge -- winning your independence -- this only paves the way for many more," the U.N. chief noted.
He called on East Timor leaders to strive to reduce poverty, disease, and inequality, to provide education and good governance for all, and to uphold the rule of law.
Annan said the United Nations has never before been asked to administer a territory on its way to independence.
He highly appreciated the efforts of the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET), which has "carried out this mission with courage and imagination."
After Annan's speech, Xanana Gusmao was sworn in as East Timor's first president. He hailed the East Timorese as "a people standing on an equal footing with all other people in the world."
"Independence! As a people, as a territory, as a nation! One body, one mind, one wish!'' Gusmao said. "Our independence will have no value, if all the people in East Timor continue to live in poverty and continue to suffer all kinds of difficulties."
The grand celebrations ended with a fireworks display, which lit up the sky of Dili, to the outbursts of cheering from the joyful crowd. The fireworks donated by China exploded in mid air into bright and gleaming sparkles in red, yellow and green colors.
Thousands of East Timorese smiled, cheered and hugged each other in an outpouring of emotion marking the birth of their new country.
Among those attending the ceremony were leaders and representatives of other countries, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who officially represented the United States, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, and Indonesian President Megawati.