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Indonesia's Aceh Rebels Come Down From The Hills to Prepare for Peace

Members of the Indonesia's rebel Free Aceh Movement have begun to gather in the capital of Banda Aceh, one day before a weapons handover agreed to in a peace deal with the Indonesian government last month.

Leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) say they view turning in their weapons to the Indonesian military as a victory in their goal of a better life for all Acehnese.

Senior GAM leader Irawandi Yusuf tells VOA that the whole purpose of the rebels' nearly 30-year struggle was to ensure a better life for the next generation.

"That was the purpose of our struggle, that was the purpose of the weapons that should be soon decommissioned,” said Mr. Yusuf. “We feel that we have achieved that, at least this is the first stage. And we hope that our next generation will be having a better life than their predecessor."

GAM had been fighting for independence from Indonesia since 1976, in an often-brutal conflict that saw at least 15,000 people die, most of them civilians.

Earlier attempts at peace failed. But the Indian Ocean tsunami in December, which destroyed large swathes of Aceh and killed more than 160,000 people there, changed all that.

Following the disaster, the two sides went back to the negotiating table, vowing to end the conflict and rebuild the region. The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) granting Aceh considerable autonomy, was the result.

GAM leader Irawandi says the tsunami paved the way for peace.

"Tsunami has opened the eyes of the world, as well as opened the minds of the warring parties," he said.

Still, distrust runs deep on both sides. Mr. Irawandi says this is GAM's last attempt at peace.

"If the government of Indonesia is careless enough to let this derail, or to create this to derail, this is the first and last time Acehnese would like to give opportunity for Indonesia to keep Aceh within its boundary," he explained.

But he says he is optimistic that peace will prevail this time, as long as the international community continues to monitor the situation and ensures both sides stick to the MOU.

"Acehnese would like to call the world community to safeguard this MOU. Let Acehnese as part of world community to enjoy peaceful life like others do," he said.

More than 200 monitors from the European Union and Asian nations have arrived in Aceh to make sure both sides adhere to the peace agreement.

Mr. Irawandi, a much- oved Banda Aceh university professor who joined GAM in 1998, was both a fighter and intelligence operative for the organization.

The 40-year-old was captured in Jakarta in 2003 and sent to prison in Banda Aceh. He escaped when the tsunami collapsed the prison walls, killing 240 of the 280 prisoners.

GAM sent him to Helsinki, where he participated in the peace talks. He then moved back to Aceh to take advantage of the amnesty agreed upon in the MOU.

As part of the peace agreement, 32,000 members of the police and military are due leave Aceh by the end of the year. On Wednesday, a first batch of 1,300 police left by ship.