Indonesian government, Aceh rebels prepare to sign peace pact to end 30 years of fighting |

Indonesian government, Aceh rebels prepare to sign peace pact to end 30 years of fighting

HELSINKI, Finland – The Indonesian government and Aceh rebels met Sunday for last-minute talks before the signing of a peace treaty aimed at ending nearly 30 years of fighting in the oil- and gas-rich province that has killed 15,000 people.Spurred by the need to get reconstruction aid to the Dec. 26 tsunami-ravaged region, the parties embarked on a seven-month peace process under the mediation of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, culminating in the accord they are to sign on Monday.In Banda Aceh, hundreds of people turned out Sunday at the city’s biggest mosque – most sent by the government in a convoy of trucks – to pray for peace. Giant screens have also been installed in the mosque so Acehnese can witness the signing of the agreement in Finland.”I’m very optimistic,” said Nurmala, a 42-year-old widow and mother of seven. Her husband was killed by Indonesian soldiers, who accused him of being a member of the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM. “This time there will be peace.”In an about-face, rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, have agreed to renounce a demand for full independence and will disarm. In return, the government has offered them amnesty, land, jobs and political representation. It has said it will also pull out tens of thousands of soldiers and police from the province by the year’s end.A previous truce ended after only six months in 2003, when the Indonesian army expelled foreign observers, declared martial law, arrested rebel negotiators and mounted an offensive in which more than 3,000 people died.However, both parties said on arrival in the Finnish capital they were optimistic about the pact and held last-minute talks Sunday. Neither side would comment on the meetings.After the fifth round of talks ended in July, the two sides declared they were committed to “a peaceful, comprehensive and sustainable solution to the conflict.”Details of the pact were to be released after the signing ceremony, but negotiators said it would deal with the governing of Aceh province and rebel participation in the political process, as well as the establishment of a monitoring mission of some 200 unarmed European Union and Southeast Asian observers.The latest hostilities in the area broke out in 1976. Although many Acehnese want an end to the bloodshed, there has been general support for independence because of abuses. Human rights groups accuse Indonesia’s army of executions, disappearances, torture and rapes.Aceh, once an independent sultanate, was invaded in 1870 by the Dutch, who attached it to their East Indies colony, which gained independence as Indonesia in 1949. The result was almost constant warfare, as guerrillas battled the Dutch, Japanese invaders during World War II, and later Indonesian rule.After the tsunami, which killed 130,000 people in Aceh alone, aid workers poured into the formerly closed province, leading to international pressure on Jakarta to halt the violence – particularly from the United States and the European Union.The peace pact will ease the delivery of international aid to the devastated province of 4.1 million inhabitants. The number of Indonesian troops in the region will be cut from 35,000 to 13,000, and police from 15,000 to 10,000.The pact is also expected to allow the separatists to field candidates in April mayoral elections. The government has reportedly agreed to change a law banning local political parties – a key rebel demand – within 18 months.Experts say the peace deal could help defuse separatist tensions that have threatened to tear Indonesia apart since the ouster of dictator Suharto in 1998 and East Timor’s secession a year later. It also would provide a blueprint for resolving another secessionist crisis in Papua, at the other end of Indonesia’s vast archipelago.—Associated Press writer Robin McDowell contributed to this report from Banda Aceh, Indonesia.Vail, Colorado

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