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Indonesian Government, Rebels Express Cautious Optimism Over Aceh Peace Deal

Both the Indonesian government and separatist rebels say they are encouraged by a tentative peace agreement aimed at ending nearly 29 years of fighting in the country's Aceh province.

The tentative peace deal, reached during a fifth round of negotiations in Finland between the Indonesian government and members of the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, has resolved such thorny issues as the demilitarization of Aceh Province and political representation for the rebels.

But before the deal can be fully implemented, Indonesia's parliament will have to change the law to allow GAM to form a political party that is based in Aceh. The election laws allow only for nationally based parties with headquarters in Jakarta, due to government fears that provincial parties may encourage separatism in the archipelago.

Both nationalist and military factions in the legislature are likely to resist such a change, but

Vice-President Jusuf Kalla says the government is willing to accommodate GAM on the issue. Mr. Kalla says the government is willing to help former GAM rebels who want to create a party based in Aceh.

GAM negotiator Nur Djuli says the agreement shows a desire on both sides to end the conflict. "The goal has become one. It's only whether each party is sincere in achieving that goal. We have set a stated goal, which is the solution of the Aceh conflict with dignity and justice for all.," he said. "If we respect that goal, then I think small disturbances, small violations could be overcome."

GAM has been fighting for independence from Indonesia since December 1976, in a conflict that has seen more than 15,000 people die - the vast majority of them civilians.

Earlier peace talks between the government and GAM have ended in failure, but the December 26 tsunami that left more than 160,000 people dead and half a million homeless in Aceh alone prompted the two sides to return to the negotiating table in January.

Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa also expressed cautious optimism. "We have been seeking all this time to have a resolution to the Aceh issue through dialogue," he said. "Barring any unexpected developments, we foresee an agreement to be reached soon, but again, we cannot pre-empt that happy outcome. We will have to see once the delegation arrives back in Jakarta and scrutinize the initial draft agreement they have reached."

Caution, even skepticism, is the reaction among the common people. Cut Yudi is a government worker in Aceh. She says she has seen too many peace attempts fail to become excited about this one. "At the moment I am not optimistic about that," she said.

The final peace agreement is expected to be signed in Helsinki on August 15.