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Indonesia's Aceh Rebels Prepare to Start Turning in Arms

  • Tim Johnston

Later this week, the tsunami-ravaged Indonesian province of Aceh takes another crucial step towards ending more than three decades of civil war, when rebels of the Free Aceh Movement start surrendering their arms in return for the withdrawal of security forces. Previous attempts to bring peace to Aceh have failed, but both sides seem committed to the spirit of their new agreement.

Thursday marks the beginning of the weapons handover, perhaps the most difficult stage of the peace process so far. Fighters from the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, are due to hand over some 210 guns - a quarter of their declared armory - which will then be destroyed by peace monitors from other Asian countries and the European Union.

The decommissioning of weapons has always been a major stumbling block to past deals, and has given rise to accusations of bad faith on both sides - not least because of the difficulty of confirming how many weapons GAM possesses.

Sofiyan Djalil is Indonesia's minister of communications and one of the government's main negotiators. He said Tuesday that the government is willing to take GAM's word on how many weapons it has, and not argue over the particulars.

"If, as some say, not all weapon handed over by GAM, maybe that kind of prediction may be right, may be wrong, but the most important thing, as long as that weapon not used in conflict, I think it is not a big deal," he said.

On Wednesday, the government will start withdrawing some 1,300 officers from the paramilitary mobile police brigade, which has been widely accused of human rights abuses in a conflict that has killed some 15,000 people, most of them civilians. Other security forces will withdraw as more weapons are handed over in the coming months.

Mr. Djalil, who was himself born in Aceh, says he believes both the government and the rebels are committed to the peace process. But he says that, almost more importantly, the Acehnese people are desperate for peace.

They are wearied after more than three decades of war, and still struggling to come to terms with December's earthquake and tsunami, which killed more than 165,000 people in the province.

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