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Indonesia, Aceh Rebels Plan to Continue Peace Talks

Three days of peace talks between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels from the Free Aceh Movement have ended on a positive note in Helsinki, with both sides agreeing to further negotiations.

The Indonesian government and members of the Free Aceh Movement have agreed to meet again in April in Helsinki after wrapping up three days of peace negotiations in the Finnish capital.

Former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, who presided over the talks, says the use of U.N. peacekeepers has been ruled out, but both sides recognize the need for some kind of monitors in Aceh if a peace agreement is reached.

Although the Free Aceh Movement had said it wanted a plebiscite in the province, Jakarta has ruled out such a vote, having already lost East Timor in a U.N.-sponsored independence vote in 1999.

Free Aceh Movement spokesman Bakhtiar Abdulah says the group is willing to discuss the government's offer of autonomy. Previously, the group has always demanded independence.

"With regards to autonomy, well, I would not deny that it is one of the agenda, but discussing the autonomy package does not mean accepting it. And this is something we are trying to work some kind of middle ground if you want to put it that way," he said.

An earlier round of talks at the end of January was the first time the two sides met since 2003, after the military launched an all-out offensive against the Free Aceh Movement when earlier peace efforts failed.

Since the December earthquake and tsunami struck Aceh there has been international pressure on both sides to peacefully resolve the 29-year-old conflict.

More than 120,000 people in Aceh died in the tsunami, and nearly as many are still missing. Much of the province's infrastructure has been destroyed.

Although both sides agreed in the January talks to refrain from hostilities while Aceh rebuilt, the military claims to have killed more than 200 rebels during the past two months.

The security forces have been accused by international human rights groups of massive abuses against civilians in Aceh, where more than 10,000 people have died in the conflict.

The Free Aceh Movement has also been accused of human rights violations, but on a smaller scale.