Mon, Aug 15, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Doubts linger over Aceh peace

NEW ACCORD Soldiers leaving the province expressed doubts over the deal, but most Acehnese appear to see it as their best chance for a new start

AP , BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA

Acehnese students release pigeons in Banda Aceh yesterday to signify their support for a peace pact between the Indonesian government and Aceh separatist rebels. Peter Feith, the head of an international mission monitoring a peace deal to be signed between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels today, called on both sides to spurn violence.

PHOTO: AFP

As a ship carrying hundreds of troops leaves Aceh's port, soldiers and police wonder if an accord being signed by the Indonesian government and separatist rebels today will bring long-lasting peace to the province.

Pointing to mountains that line the tsunami-ravaged coastlines, they say they don't believe Free Aceh Movement leaders who negotiated the deal, many of whom have lived abroad for years, are in touch with their men in the field.

The rebels have their own concerns, they are worried for their safety and are lying low in their jungle-hideouts.

"We cannot leave until the accord is signed," said Tengku Muksalmina, one of the rebel's regional commanders. "Some Indonesian troops are surrounding us in a ready-to-shoot position, and we've been ordered to avoid armed clashes."

Despite the last-minute jitters, everyone in the war-torn province seems to agree. This is the best chance Acehnese have had in years to end the fighting that has claimed 15,000 lives since 1976, most of them civilians.

Some 200 EU and Southeast Asian monitors will be deployed across the province to make sure both sides honor the agreement.

"We have urged both parties to show maximum restraint, to desist from all acts of violence and use of force," said Peter Feith, the Dutch head of the monitoring mission.

"This will create the climate of confidence" we need to usher in much-wanted peace, he said.

Previous deals have collapsed, the most recent in 2003 when the army and the rebels accused each other of violations. The military kicked out foreign observers, declared martial law, arrested rebel negotiators and mounted an offensive in which thousands died.

Tsunami

It took the Dec. 26 tsunami, which killed 130,000 people and destroyed much of the province's infrastructure, to bring the Indonesian government and Free Aceh Movement rebels back to the negotiating table.

Vice President Jusaf Kalla said the exiled rebel leadership saw the devastation caused by the killer waves on television and decided it was time to stop fighting.

"And we realized, too, that rehabilitation and reconstruction in Aceh would be impossible if there was no peace," he said, noting that thousands of international aid workers poured into the province after the disaster to help.

Aid incentives

Billions of dollars in aid -- including a US$400 million road along the coast of Sumatra island -- risked being held up.

Both sides made major concessions during peace talks in Helsinki, Finland last month.

The rebels gave up their long-held demand for independence, agreeing to remain part of Indonesia, and to give up their weapons. In return, the government offered them land and jobs, and, most importantly, some sort of political representation.

Details of the accord were slowly emerging. In addition to its own flag and hymn, the resource-rich province will be allowed to hold elections next year for a regional head. All parties, including former representatives of the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, will be allowed to nominate themselves.

"The rebels have been struggling for 30 years, but what is the result? Nothing," said Hasballah Saad, a former human rights minister and an Acehnese native. "Now they have a legitimate reason to stop their struggle -- they get amnesty, economic compensation and political representation."

And, as demanded by the rebels, more than 20,000 of Indonesia's 50,000 troops will withdraw from the resource-rich province.

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