Fri, Jan 28, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Indonesian leaders urge peace talks

CATALYST FOR TALKS Indonesian leaders and parliament are discussing how to end Aceh's ongoing conflict, and give the province autonomy

AP , Jakarta and Banda Aceh

Acehnese people come to the Baiturrahman mosque for Eid-Al-Adha prayers in Banda Aceh last week. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono encouraged the shattered survivors of last month's killer tsunami that devastated Aceh province to rebuild for a better future.

PHOTO: AFP

Indonesia's president yesterday offered wide-ranging autonomy to separatist rebels in tsunami-devastated Aceh province and promised other concessions in upcoming peace talks.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he had offered rebel leaders "new talks for ending the conflict peacefully and wisely."

"I heard that the response is positive," he said in an interview with CNBC Asia Pacific television.

The warring sides are scheduled to meet in Helsinki, Finland, today to try to hammer out a formal cease-fire. Indonesia wants the talks to be followed by more substantive negotiations on the status of Aceh.

The Free Aceh Movement, known by the Indonesian acronym GAM, has been fighting since 1976 for independence for the Holland-sized province of 4.1 million people on the northern tip of Sumatra island. A previous truce collapsed in 2003 when the Indonesian military launched a new offensive against the insurgents.

At the time, Indonesia's parliament approved a special autonomy package for the resource-rich province which would give its people self-government while keeping them within Indonesia, but the measure was never implemented because of the fighting.

Since assuming office 100 days ago, Yudhoyono has repeatedly said that he wished to restart the peace process, and last month's tsunami, which badly damaged the province, has provided a catalyst for the talks.

"I have to continue our talks with GAM leadership with the hope that this momentum can be used wisely and properly by GAM as well as my government to terminate the conflict and to unite, rebuild Aceh peacefully," he said.

"If we agree to terminate the conflict based on the special autonomy status, I will give some concessions to them," Yudhoyono said, adding that these would include an amnesty for the rebels and measures to re-integrate rebel fighters.

Mediators at the talks have said the rebels are unlikely to agree to anything less than an internationally supervised independence referendum like the one that ended Indonesian rule in East Timor in 1999.

Pro-independence sentiments are very strong in Aceh and Jakarta's rule is widely despised, making it likely that any free vote would result in a landslide victory for the separatists.

Another key rebel demand has been the full withdrawal of Indonesian forces.

In the interview, Yudhoyono said the military presence would likely decrease after a cease-fire, but that some troops would remain.

"Actually, it depends on how could we terminate the conflict," he said. "Because, after all, security is needed by our brothers and sisters in Aceh. That's the objective of deploying and employing military units in Aceh right now."

japan's aid

In other developments, two Japanese military hovercraft landed in tsunami-shattered Aceh yesterday, bringing a water purification plant and medical supplies to set in motion Japan's largest-ever overseas relief effort.

The craft beached in front of around 50 curious residents in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital and one of the areas hardest-hit areas by the Dec. 26 quake and tsunami.

The Japanese operation began as other foreign militaries, including the US, began scaling back their efforts in Aceh province, on the northern tip of Sumatra island.

The 20-meter-long hovercraft, propelled by two huge aft turbines, skimmed the surface of the water as they traveled at high speed from their mother ship, Kunisaki, anchored 2km off Banda Aceh.

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