Tsunami helps put Aceh on road to peace

The tsunami that devastated Aceh helped bring a conclusion to Indonesia's longest-running armed conflict, and set the impoverished province on the road to prosperity, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Monday. "Here in Aceh we already have an example of how a new hope for peace can emerge out of the ruin of destruction," Yudhoyono said at a ceremony marking the first anniversary of the tsunami that struck 12 Indian Ocean countries, leaving at least 216,000 missing or dead.

Aceh was closest to the undersea earthquake that spawned the tsunami and was hit hardest, with more than 156,000 dead and missing. Although Indonesian authorities and separatists of the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym as GAM, had been moving toward peace talks before the tsunami, the disaster forced both sides to focus on the need to end their war.

Peace talks opened in January and were successfully wrapped up by July. The rebels gave up their demands for a referendum like the one that ended Indonesian rule in East Timor in 1999, while the government promised them broad autonomy and allowed them to take part in regional elections that they are expected to win overwhelmingly. So far, both sides have stuck to the agreement. The guerrillas have handed over their weapons to an European Union-led observer mission, while more than 24,000 government troops pulled out of Aceh. The final military and police contingents will depart by Dec. 31.

But a proposal by Indonesia's military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto to send additional troops to Aceh to help with tsunami reconstruction might cause further problems. Sutarto told The Associated Press on Monday that his proposal was for one engineering battalion of 400-500 troops, not the 15,000 reported earlier, to be sent to Aceh. Pieter Feith, the Dutch head of the peace monitors, said Sutarto's plan "is a bit of a complication for us."

"If it is done unilaterally without consulting us or GAM, then it may become a problem," he told the AP. The rebel group is expected to announce on Tuesday it has disbanded its military arm and will instead continue its activities as a political party.

At a meeting with Yudhoyono on Tuesday their representatives will ask for the release of the 80 remaining Acehnese prisoners in Indonesian jails, out of over 1,800 before the peace agreement, and for an amnesty for Indonesian soldiers and policemen who deserted to the rebel side during the war.

"We are fully committed" to the peace accord, said Bakhtiar Abdullah, the rebel representative in Banda Aceh. "Our focus is now on political work,” reports the AP. I.L.

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