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Aceh Peace Talks Begin in Tokyo

The Indonesian government and separatist rebels met for peace talks in Tokyo as scheduled Saturday, and Indonesian authorities subsequently released five members of the rebel negotiating team whose detention had threatened to derail the talks.

After a day of uncertainty, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said the Aceh peace talks would begin Saturday after all.

Rebel leader Mahmood Malik had expressed doubts about the talks Saturday morning, after arriving from his Swedish base and learning his comrades had been arrested when they tried to leave for Japan. Mr. Malik said he would confer with international mediators before deciding whether to proceed.

Later in the evening, it was announced that the talks would start after all.

The Indonesians have given varying accounts of why the negotiators were arrested as they attempted to leave Indonesia on Friday.

The U.S. State Department on Friday expressed concern over the arrests, and called for Indonesia to ensure the talks are allowed to proceed with negotiators selected by each side.

The talks, sponsored by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, are a last minute effort to salvage a peace treaty that appears in imminent danger of collapse.

The treaty was signed in December, raising hopes for an end to 27 years of civil war in Aceh. The treaty gives considerable autonomy to the province.

But the two sides have interpreted the treaty differently. The rebels say it is just a stepping stone to eventual independence. The government says it will not allow the province to break away.

Indonesia has sent thousands of extra troops to the region to prepare for a massive push against the separatists, if they do not agree to Jakarta's terms.

Indonesia's top security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, gave a none too subtle indication of Jakarta's intentions Friday, after a meeting with his advisers.

He says his forces are ready to carry out an "operation" in Aceh. If President Megawati Sukarnoputri gives the order, he says, the military is ready to go.