Indonesia's withdrawal of troops from Aceh province welcomed

Indonesia's withdrawal of troops from Aceh province has been welcomed as a important step towards a lasting peace. The pull-out was the final military move in a peace deal agreed with rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) aimed at ending 26 years of bitter conflict. The chief international mediator behind the peace process, Maarti Ahtisaari, told the BBC he was impressed by the good faith shown by both sides. Indonesia's media also widely commends what it calls a "new phase" for peace. The peace deal finally came together following the tsunami a year ago, which devastated large parts of the province.

Hundreds of people gathered on the dockside in Aceh's Lhokseumawe port on Thursday to witness a short ceremony marking the troop withdrawal. It marked the final pull-out of some 24,000 government soldiers, leaving only local troops and police in Aceh.

Mr Ahtisaari, a former Finnish president, praised the way both the government and rebels had stuck to the terms of the agreement signed in Helsinki in August. "I'm not surprised, but I must say that I'm nevertheless impressed and pleased that the parties have kept to their word," he said. "It's a very impressive performance by both the government of Indonesia and Gam."

He said he now hoped to see new investment in the region, meaning there was "everything to gain" for the whole of Indonesia. Pieter Feith, head of the 240-strong EU peace monitoring mission, said Gam could now turn to ballots rather than bullets to achieve its aspirations.

Gam spokesman Irwandi Yusuf told the Associated Press news agency: "I hope this really means peace is at hand." He said former insurgents were looking forward to taking part in local elections next year. Aceh military commander Supaidin Adi Saputra said former separatist rebels in exile who came home would be safe.

He singled out Gam leader Hasan di Tiro, who has been in Sweden, telling AP his return to Aceh would be considered "a commitment to peace".

Indonesia on Thursday said it would again post an ambassador to Sweden, having downgraded ties in protest at Stockholm's refusal to take action against Aceh activists on its soil. Indonesia's media has broadly welcomed what it describes as a chance for Aceh's people to enter "a new phase of normal life,” reports the AP. I.L.

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