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New Peace Talks Between Indonesia Government, Rebels - 2003-05-15

The Indonesian government and leaders from the separatist Free Aceh Movement have agreed to hold talks in an effort avoid new fighting in Aceh. The agreement comes on the same day as a government deadline for the rebels to return to the negotiating table.

Officials say the peace talks between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement will take place in Tokyo on May 17. Both the government and rebels from the Free Aceh Movement announced the decision Thursday - the day the government had set as a deadline for the rebels to return to the negotiating table or face renewed fighting.

The Tokyo meeting may be the last chance to save Aceh's five-month-old peace process, which has been on the verge of collapse for weeks.

Not everyone is optimistic that war can be avoided. Ken Conboy, an analyst with the Jakarta firm, Risk Management Advisory, says he does not think the talks will save the peace plan. "I don't see how, as it's written, it could have possibly succeeded. I think the most that these things buy are very short tactical ceasefires," he says. "But they never really result in a strategic shift of opinions or any kind of strategic resolution to the underlying problems up there."

The main problem is the question of Aceh's future status. Both sides signed an agreement on December 9 that outlined the government's offer of increased autonomy for Aceh - which most other provinces do not have. The government says that by signing the deal, the rebels had to drop their campaign for independence from Indonesia.

The rebels, however, say that autonomy is a stepping stone to independence - a move the government adamantly opposes. A rebel spokesman said Thursday that the Tokyo meeting does not mean the Free Aceh Movement has accepted the special autonomy plan. Instead, he says, that is one of the issues to be discussed.

The government has deployed thousands of troops to Aceh to be ready for a possible resumption of hostilities.

Also Thursday, a statement released by the United States, the European Union and the World Bank - all international aid donors - expressed "deep concern" about the breakdown in the peace process.

The December 9 peace agreement in Aceh was brokered by the Swiss organization, the Henry Dunant Center. International peace monitors working for the center began leaving Indonesia on Wednesday, because of the impasse between the government and the rebels.