Indonesia hopes to complete withdrawal of 24,000 troops from Aceh

Indonesia was preparing to pull the last of 24,000 troops from tsunami-ravaged Aceh province on Thursday, a key step in a peace accord to end three decades of fighting with separatist rebels, the military said. Lt. Col. Eri Soetiko said Wednesday that 3,353 Indonesian soldiers were scheduled to leave from the port town of Lhokseumawe on three navy ships and two air force transport planes within 24 hours.

The announcement came one day after the Free Aceh Movement rebels said they had disbanded their military wing, paving the way for their participation in local elections next year. "The Aceh national army is now part of civil society," said rebel commander Sofyan Daud, effectively ending the separatist insurgency that has killed at least 15,000 people since 1976.

"We are entering a political era now," he said, days after the group finished handing in all of their self-declared 840 assault rifles, rocket launchers and handguns. "We do not need weapons anymore." Peace efforts picked up speed after a magnitude 9 earthquake and resulting tsunami struck the area on Dec. 26, 2004, leaving at least 156,000 of the province's people dead or missing and a half-million more homeless.

The government and rebels said they did not want to add to people's suffering and, when they returned to the negotiating table in the months that followed, each side made major concessions.

The rebels agreed to hand-over all of their weapons and gave up their long-held demand for independence. The government vowed to pull nearly half of its nearly 50,000 garrison from Aceh and to give the region limited self-government and control over 70 percent of the province's mineral wealth.

Thursday's withdrawal will leave 23,700 soldiers and policemen in the province. So far, the peace deal has held, with the help of international monitors, reports the AP. I.L.

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