Five Aceh separatists were arrested yesterday as they tried to leave for peace talks with the Indonesian government, and rebels threatened to pull out of the discussions entirely unless the negotiators were released.
The talks in Tokyo aim to save a faltering Dec. 9 peace deal in the oil- and gas-rich province that was hailed as a landmark attempt to end a 26-year insurgency which has left 12,000 people dead.
The arrests came just hours after US President George W. Bush congratulated Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri "on going the extra mile in pursuit of peace" by agreeing to the talks in Japan.
"The United States strongly supports efforts to pursue a negotiated peace in Aceh within the framework of a unified Indonesia," Bush said in a statement.
The negotiators from the Free Aceh Movement were arrested as they tried to leave their hotel in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and travel to the airport. Police said the men were detained because they had not reported to officers before leaving the province -- something they are required to do under the peace deal.
Three of the men were also under house arrest after police said last week they were considering charging them with ties to a series of recent bombings in Indonesia.
"These arrests are wrong," chief negotiator Zaini Abdullah said from Sweden, where several senior rebels live in exile. "We will not negotiate unless the men are released."
Abdullah said he and four other negotiators were still planning to leave for Tokyo despite the arrests.
A spokesman for the Aceh police force Colonel Sayed Husaini declined to say whether the men would be released in time to attend the talks.