Despite the threat of an immediate military crackdown, Aceh rebel negotiators arriving in Tokyo yesterday for last-ditch peace talks with the Indonesian government refused to attend the meeting until several delegates detained in the war-torn province are released.
Chief rebel negotiator Zaini Abdullah said he is still hoping for a peaceful solution to one of the world's longest armed insurgencies. But he said the five delegates who were arrested as they were departing Aceh for Tokyo must first be freed.
"The door to solve the problem, our conflict in Aceh, is open," he said upon arrival with three other rebel negotiators from their base in Sweden. "We don't boycott this meeting, but how can we attend this meeting without our delegation members?"
"We have to show the international community that we are committed to come here to Tokyo," he added. But he said progress "depends on the Indonesian side."
Bakhtiar Abdullah, another member of the rebel delegation, said the delegates' release was "absolutely necessary."
Indonesia's chief negotiator had also arrived in Tokyo for the talks, scheduled for yesterday and today, but because of the detentions it was unclear when or even if the meeting would begin.
Authorities in Aceh, meanwhile, continued to question the five.
"They are still being interrogated," Aceh police spokesman Colonel Sayed Husaini said yesterday. "A decision hasn't been made yet on their release."
The talks are a last-minute effort to avert war and save a faltering peace deal signed in Geneva last December that was hailed as a historic attempt to end the separatist insurgency, which has left 12,000 people dead, most of them civilians.
The deal led to a brief lull in hostilities. But violence has recently increased again, and tensions in the oil and gas-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra are high.
The government insists the rebels must drop their demands for independence, lay down their weapons and accept special autonomy. If the talks break down, Jakarta has made it clear the rebels will face an immediate military crackdown.
Jakarta this week sent several thousand troops to reinforce its 30,000 or so soldiers in the region against a poorly equipped rebel army estimated to number 3,000 to 5,000.
The Tokyo talks -- which were announced suddenly just two days before they were to begin -- are the result of intense pressure from Indonesia's donor countries. Japan is one of those countries, and hosted an international conference on aid to Aceh just before the peace agreement was reached.
The detention of the delegates in Aceh, however, threatened to scuttle the meeting altogether.
National Police Chief General Dai Bachtiar said late Friday that all five were detained because they are suspected of involvement in recent bombings in Indonesia. The rebels have denied the charges.
The government said the five could go as long as the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Center, which helped broker the peace deal, provides a guarantee that they will return after the talks end.