Indonesia said yesterday it would cease attacks on separatist rebels in Aceh as both sides prepared for peace talks in the stricken province where the tsunami death toll has risen to almost 174,000.
Military chief General Endriartono Sutarto said his men had stopped raids on Free Aceh Movement guerrilla camps as diplomats tried to halt the long-running conflict that has threatened to disrupt efforts to bring aid to survivors.
Sutarto also said the army had killed a total of 208 separatists since the rebels declared a unilateral ceasefire on the day of the Dec. 26 disaster, a claim which will do little to tone down the military's aggressive image.
Exiled rebel leaders expressed pessimism over the likelihood of peace talks with no contact yet from Jakarta despite Indonesian officials indicating that dialogue which collapsed last year could resume as soon as the end of this month.
"We have not seen anything, we have not heard anything, there's no such thing going to happen," spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah said by phone from Sweden.
Indonesia began an operation in May 2003 to crush rebels fighting a 28-year-long struggle against the government they accuse of syphoning off the province's resources, but the tsunami has given a new urgency to calls for reconciliation.
Armed forces chief Sutarto said his troops would continue providing security for foreign aid workers in Aceh, but his standdown is likely to be seen as progress for a military that has shown scant interest in political resolution to the conflict.
"We are no longer conducting offensive activities to raid GAM bases," he said, referring to the rebels by their Indonesian acronym.
Social Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab, who is overseeing relief operations in Aceh, said on Saturday the government would consider anything except sovereignty for Aceh during upcoming peace talks.
"We will entertain any demand short of independence," he said.
Rebel spokesman Abdullah said his side was still eager to hold talks, but only if the terms were acceptable.
"We have always said we're not going to close our door for dialogue but it has to be sustainable and agreeable for both parties. It takes two to tango," he said.
Almost one month after the disaster, Indonesia's health ministry revised upwards the coun-try's death toll yet again by 7,000 to 173,981, although there was confusion over the true figure, which officials say may never be known.
Shihab said the latest number of confirmed dead and buried was 93,482, with another 132,172 believed killed, missing or fled. He said the government was working on providing a single information center on the casualties.
But Shihab said progress in bringing aid to Aceh was being made and the emergency relief phase was now winding down, allowing foreign troops to exit.
"The emergency state is almost behind us. So the [foreign] military will no longer be effective to give a contribution," he said.
"We are now opening up isolated areas through ground access so we don't need more helicopters to fly. We need more pick-ups [trucks] to go around," he said.
The US, whose helicopters and warships have been at the forefront of the humanitarian response to the tsunami and earthquake, has already announced that it was scaling down its military operations in Aceh.