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Indonesian Aceh Separatists Ready to Give Peace a Chance - 2003-04-29

Leaders from the separatist movement in Indonesia's Aceh province say they are willing to meet the government to try to save a peace plan.

Rebel leaders from the Free Aceh Movement say the government must resume withdrawing its troops to defensive positions. Then, the rebels say, they will return to the negotiating table to try to save the Aceh peace plan.

The rebels' statement comes in response to comments by Indonesia's senior security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, on Monday. He said the government will not meet the rebels until they formally declare that they accept the government's plan to give Aceh increased autonomy over its affairs but not independence.

That is the issue upon which the peace plan hinges, and both sides say they will not give in. On Tuesday, the Free Aceh Movement said it will continue its campaign for independence from Indonesian rule.

The Free Aceh Movement signed a historic peace deal with the Indonesian government in December. The rebels agreed to lay down their weapons, and the government pledged to pull back its troops.

Neither side complied with the plan, in part because they did not trust each other.

The two sides have different interpretations of the peace plan's ultimate goal. The government says special autonomy is enough for the province, and it points out that nowhere in the accord is there discussion of Acehenese independence.

But the rebels say the peace deal calls for all Acehnese to participate in the peace process. To them, that means a vote on Aceh's political future remains a possibility.

The plan has appeared close to collapse since last week, when the government refused to attend a meeting in Switzerland to salvage the accord.

Aceh's peace plan has been widely hailed as the best chance to end more than 20 years of conflict. International donors including the United States, the European Union and Japan have urged the two sides to return to the negotiating table.