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Indonesia's Aceh Rebels Begin Surrendering Weapons

Dozens of rebels from the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, came to the regional capital of Banda Aceh Thursday to hand in a total of 78 weapons to international monitors from the European Union and Asian nations.

Scores of GAM fighters rode onto a football field, and watched under the scorching sun, as their leaders handed over weapon after weapon to members of the Aceh Monitoring Mission.

International monitors used a machine to cut the guns into three parts, while members of the Indonesian government observed the process.

The governor of Aceh, Azwar Abubakar, says he is happy to see the end of the nearly 29-year conflict, which has claimed at least 15,000 in the province on the northern tip of Sumatra Island.

"I'm happy because the peace process now start and begun. I'm optimistic. If peace, we can build everything in Aceh," said Abubakar.

Senior GAM leader Irawandi Yusuf says surrendering the weapons leaves him with mixed emotions.

"Mixed feelings, because we have to let go our heroes that have defended our dignity and our people and our land. But, now, they have completed their mission, bringing Acehnese people to the stage you all know today," said Yusuf.

The Indonesian information and communications minister, Sofyan Djalil, one of the key negotiators in the peace talks held in Helsinki, Finland, says the weapons handover is a step toward lasting peace in Aceh.

"This is a very historical event. We expect this is another part of confidence-building, in order to achieve a permanent, peaceful settlement for Aceh problem," said Djalil.

Several earlier peace attempts failed. But the Indian Ocean tsunami last December decimated Aceh, and killed more than 160,000 people there. That brought the warring parties back to the negotiating table, determined at last to end the conflict and rebuild the shattered province.

During the peace talks, GAM agreed to drop its independence demand, in exchange for broad autonomy for the province, and a promise that more revenue from its rich oil and gas fields would remain at home.

More weapons are expected to be handed over and destroyed during the next several days.

According to the peace agreement, GAM has until December to hand in a total of 840 weapons, the number agreed upon at the peace talks in Helsinki. In return, the government has begun withdrawing its security forces from the region.