Indonesian officials and rebels from the separatist Free Aceh Movement concluded their third round of talks Saturday in the Finnish capital of Helsinki. The talks ended on an upbeat note.
Negotiators from the Indonesian government and the separatist Free Aceh Movement ended their talks in the Finnish capital saying progress is being achieved on both political and economic issues, but each side acknowledges that security remains their biggest obstacle.
A spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement, Bahtiar Abdullah, who attended the talks in Helsinki, said continued fighting in Aceh is hampering the two sides from reaching a lasting peace settlement.
"We are very concerned about this development on the ground, and that has been put on the record," said Bahtiar Abdullah. "Both parties will do their utmost to restrain their security forces in the field during the negotiation process."
The peace talks had originally been scheduled to end Sunday, but both sides say the major issues were covered. Indonesian officials say they are needed back in Jakarta for a summit of Asian and African leaders next week
Mr. Bahtiar called the talks "very constructive" and says both sides have agreed to a fourth round of talks on May 26 in Helsinki.
"We have discussed very comprehensive issues and also we've had some very good constructive discussions, but the final outcome of the whole process has yet to be seen. And this is something that we are cautiously optimistic [about] reaching a comprehensive, attainable, peaceful, solution for tsunami Aceh."
The Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, has been fighting since 1976 for independence in the oil and gas rich province of Aceh, located on the northern tip of Sumatra Island.
More than 12,000 people have died in the conflict, the vast majority of them civilians.
Indonesian government spokesman Dino Djalal says the talks are moving in the right direction and the government is hopeful a peaceful solution to the long-lasting conflict can be reached by July.
"We welcome the opportunity to discuss in substantive details the arrangements for autonomy or self-government that was to be the heart of a political settlement between the two sides," said Dino Djalal. "We are committed to finding a peaceful political settlement and we are committed to continuing these negotiations."
The government and GAM met for the first round of peace talks in January, prompted by the December tsunami disaster that claimed over 200,000 lives in Aceh.
It was the first time the two sides met face-to-face since May 2003, after the military launched an all-out offensive against the rebels following the breakdown of earlier peace talks.
A second round of talks in February was seen as a significant step forward after both sides agreed to discuss an autonomy arrangement. Before that, GAM had refused to give up its demand for independence.