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EU Team Visits Troubled Indonesia Province Ahead of Peace Talks


A European-led team is visiting Indonesia's troubled Aceh province to prepare for the monitoring of a possible peace deal between the Indonesian government and Aceh separatist rebels.

The 12-member team from the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations arrived late Tuesday in Indonesia's northern Aceh Province.

The Indonesian Minister of Communication and Information, Sofyan Jalil, says the team wants to see what may be needed in the way of infrastructure and communications if a peace deal is struck.

Bahtiar Abdullah is a spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM. He says the EU-ASEAN team's visit is opposed by hard-line factions in the military, but says it is a victory for the peace process. "The EU delegation to come to Aceh to carry out an assessment mission is in fact a defiant move against the Indonesian hardliners or the hawks who are against the whole peace process and with regards to that we are cautiously optimistic that a peace deal can be achieved," he said.

Four rounds of peace talks between Jakarta and the separatists have been held during the past five months in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. A fifth round is scheduled for next month.

Government officials are optimistic a peace deal may be struck soon. Both sides have already agreed to international monitoring if a peace deal is reached, but thorny issues remain, including the political future of the separatists.

GAM has been fighting for independence in resource-rich Aceh since 1976 and more than 10,000 people, the majority of them civilians, have died in the conflict.

An earlier peace agreement failed in 2003, with the government declaring martial law. The military then launched an all-out offensive against the rebels.

But after last December's earthquake and tsunami struck Aceh, killing more than 160,000 people and destroying most of the infrastructure, Jakarta and the rebels went back to the negotiating table.

Jakarta downgraded Aceh's status to civil emergency in 2004, and last month returned the province to normal administration as it launched a major reconstruction program to rebuild the tsunami-devastated region, but sporadic fighting continues.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said he wants a peace deal with GAM to be finalized by August to help ensure the reconstruction process in Aceh runs smoothly.

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