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International Monitors Arrive in Aceh Ahead of Possible Cease-Fire - 2002-11-12

Foreign observers have begun arriving in Indonesia's western Aceh province to prepare for a possible ceasefire between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels as the government has begun a new offensive against the rebels.

The Henri Dunant Center that is mediating the conflict in Aceh says the teams begin deploying this week as part of the peace process.

Center officials in Banda Aceh say the first team will arrive Friday in the town of Sigli, 100 kilometers east of the provincial capital. They say four other teams are to go to other cities in the province.

The teams are being sent out in preparation for the signing in a few weeks of a ceasefire agreement between the two sides, said an official with the Swiss Center, Bill Dowell. "What they will do is survey the outlying districts, talk with local officials and see what the logistical requirements will be for the actual monitors when they are set up, after the signing of the peace agreement," he explained.

The Swiss center this year began been facilitating talks between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). The rebels have been fighting for independence in the province for 26 years.

Last May, the two sides agreed to talks aimed at halting the fighting.

Center officials say after months of preparation, the ceasefire accord is to be signed at the end of the month in Geneva.

The Indonesian government has passed a law granting the province political autonomy and 70 percent of the revenues from its considerable oil and timber resources.

The rebels say they will consider the autonomy proposal, but have not abandoned their goal of an independent Aceh.

Government forces this week surrounded about 200 rebels and began firing mortars and rockets on their positions in a mountainous region southeast of Banda Aceh. Government officials say they are trying to keep the rebels from leaving the area. They say the siege will continue until the rebels sign the peace agreement.

The main rebel negotiator in Banda Aceh, Teuku Kamaruzzaman, recently accused the Indonesian government of pursuing contradictory policies. Mr. Kamaruzzaman said this is the dilemma of the conflict in Aceh: on one hand, the government says it wants to solve the conflict through dialogue. But then, it intensifies its military operations to eliminate the Free Aceh movement.

The government has given the rebels until early December, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, to lay down their arms, or face a major military onslaught. The rebels say government troops will not be able to drive them completely from the territory.