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Indonesia Government Prepares for Talks with Aceh Rebels

An Indonesian government delegation is in Finland preparing for talks with the exiled leadership of the Aceh-separatist movement known as GAM. The two sides are looking for a solution to the 28-year conflict in Aceh, and the talks have been given extra impetus by the need to cooperate to rebuild the region that was devastated by last month's disastrous earthquake and tsunami. Few observers expect the road to peace to be smooth.

Hopes are high that the meeting Friday in Finland might be a first step in bringing peace after more than a quarter of a century of conflict in Aceh.

Until last month, there was little hope of any resolution, but the devastating earthquake and tsunami has changed the political and geographical landscape in Aceh. As many as a quarter-million people died in Aceh in the disaster.

The shared misery has given a window of opportunity for talks, and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari is to be involved in bringing the two sides together.

The Indonesian government has indicated its seriousness by sending a delegation of three senior ministers, including the coordinating minister for politics and security, Admiral Widodo.

But observers say that it will not be easy to bridge suspicions entrenched by 28 years of bitter conflict.

"There is no downside for either party going to these talks: the question is, is there a willingness beyond getting to the talks," says Sidney Jones, head of the South East Asia office of the International Crisis Group.

About 15,000 people have been killed in the conflict, many of them civilian victims of the army's attempts to crush the rebels.

Aceh, the northern-most province on Sumatra island, is rich in natural resources. The separatists say the government denies the Acehnese a full share in the profits from those resources.

The rebels, known by their Indonesian initials GAM, say they are willing to negotiate without conditions, and the government says it is willing to consider anything short of independence.

Few observers doubt that it will be difficult to find a mutually acceptable solution, but they say that after the earthquake, there is a better chance of peace than there has been for years.