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Indonesia Release British Academic Accused of Helping Aceh Rebels - 2003-02-09

Indonesia has released a British academic after five months in jail in the northern province of Aceh, where rebels have been fighting for independence for 26 years. The government had accused her of aiding the rebels. The release comes at a key point in Aceh's two-month-old peace process.

British academic Leslie McCulloch stepped out of jail Sunday in Aceh's provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Ms. McCulloch and a friend, American nurse Joy Lee Sadler, were arrested in September on charges they visited Aceh with tourist visas. The area is restricted to foreigners unless they have journalist visas.

Indonesian authorities also charged that the two were carrying material on the Free Aceh Movement, a separatist rebel group.

Ms. McCulloch was sentenced to five months in jail in December - and Ms. Sadler four months. Their sentences started at the time of their arrests, and Ms. Sadler was released last month.

Ms. McCulloch is a British academic who teaches at a university in Australia. She has written articles that are critical of the Indonesian military and its actions in Aceh province. Some of the articles have appeared in the Indonesian press.

The two women say Indonesian authorities beat them after their arrest, charges the government denies. During their time in jail, both women staged hunger strikes to protest their detention and maintain they did nothing wrong.

The release comes as the Indonesian government and rebels move into the disarmament phase of the peace agreement they signed in December.

The Henri Dunant Center in Switzerland brokered negotiations between the government and the Free Aceh Movement, called GAM. The center's spokesman, Steve Daly, explained the new phase of the plan. "Basically the idea is that it'd be a phased process that will be reciprocal by both sides. In other words, if GAM places X percent of their weapons, then the Indonesian government forces should reciprocate by pulling back that same percentage of their forces into a defensive position," he said.

Mr. Daly said Sunday marks a symbolic start to the disarmament process.

Troops have been fighting the rebels since 1976, when the Free Aceh Movement declared the province independent of Indonesia.

Under the peace deal, elections for a provincial legislature will be held, and Aceh will be allowed more control over the province's natural resources, a source of much of the friction between the two sides.