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Strongman Bouterse sworn-in as Suriname president

PARAMARIBO (Reuters) - Former coup leader and convicted cocaine smuggler Desi Bouterse was sworn in on Thursday as president of Suriname and promised to work with the opposition to develop the South American country.

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Bouterse, who previously seized power in two coups and is wanted in the Netherlands to serve a drugs sentence, was elected by parliament last month after his Mega Combination coalition won most seats in a May election.

“I solemnly promise that service and sacrifice will be the base of my work,” he said at a colorful ceremony at an indoor stadium in the capital Paramaribo, after outgoing leader Ronald Venetiaan signed a proclamation transferring power.

“The opposition are not our opponents. We see them as cooperation partners to accomplish policy together,” Bouterse said, also vowing to fight against corruption.

Foreign investors are waiting to see if he is able to reinvent himself despite his track record, but fear he may ditch economic policies that have helped his small country of 490,000 people weather the global financial crisis.

No other heads of state were at the swearing-in. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez had been due to attend, Suriname officials said, but sent his foreign minister instead.

Suriname, a former Dutch colony on the continent’s northeastern shoulder, won independence in 1975 and is now a gold and bauxite miner with a nascent oil industry.

Bouterse has said he hopes to strengthen ties with Brazil and China after he takes office. The Asian giant is already deeply involved in logging and road building in Suriname.

Bouterse, 64, took part in two coups in 1980 and 1990, and still faces prosecution in his country for the execution of 15 opponents in 1982 during his military rule. That trial began three years ago, but he has refused to attend court and the proceedings have continued without him.

He was also convicted in absentia of drug-trafficking by the Netherlands in 1999, which has prevented him from traveling to countries that have extradition treaties with Amsterdam.

When Bouterse was elected last month, Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said in a statement he would only be welcome in the Netherlands to serve his 11 year sentence.

Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Jerry Norton