Aceh rebels offered autonomy

Associated Press

Jakarta, January 27:

Indonesia’s president today offered wide-ranging autonomy to separatist rebels in tsunami-devastated Aceh province and promised other concessions in upcoming peace talks.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he had offered rebel leaders “new talks for ending the conflict peacefully and wisely.” “I heard that the response is positive,” he said in an interview with CNBC Asia Pacific television.

The warring sides are scheduled to meet in Helsinki, Finland, tomorrow to try to hammer out a formal ceasefire. Indonesia wants the talks to be followed by more substantive negotiations on the status of Aceh.

The Free Aceh Movement, known by the Indonesian acronym GAM, has been fighting since 1976 for independence for the Holland-sized province of 4.1 million people on the northern tip of Sumatra island.

“I have to continue our talks with GAM leadership with the hope that this momentum can be used wisely and properly by GAM as well as my government to terminate the conflict and to unite, rebuild Aceh peacefully,” he said.

“If we agree to terminate the conflict based on the special autonomy status, I will give some concessions to them,” Yudhoyono said, adding that these would include an amnesty for the rebels and measures to reintegrate rebel fighters.

Mediators at the talks have said the rebels are unlikely to agree to anything less than an internationally supervised independence referendum like the one that ended Indonesian rule in East Timor in 1999. Another key rebel demand has been the full withdrawal of Indonesian forces.

In the interview, Yudhoyono said the military presence would likely decrease after a ceasefire, but that some troops would remain.

“Actually, it depends on how could we terminate the conflict,” he said. “Because, after all, security is needed by our brothers and sisters in Aceh. That’s the objective of deploying and employing military units in Aceh right now.”