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Indonesia, Aceh Rebels Begin New Round of Peace Talks in Finland

The Indonesian government and separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement began a new round of peace talks in Helsinki Monday, aimed at solving nearly three decades of conflict.

The separatist rebels, known as GAM, are demanding the full withdrawal of Indonesia's 50,000 strong security forces from the region of Aceh, located on the northern tip of Sumatra Island.

The oil- and gas-rich region was the hardest hit by the December 26 earthquake and tsunami, with more than 230,000 people either dead or missing and many villages and infrastructure destroyed.

That disaster has thrown Aceh's decades-old conflict into the international spotlight, with both sides under pressure to proceed with peace talks so that reconstruction can proceed without conflict.

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono says it is time to find a lasting solution to the conflict.

"I call on GAM, the Aceh separatist movement to terminate the conflict, to come to permanent peace with dignity, and to work together to rebuild Aceh under the framework of special autonomy," he said. "This is what Acehnese want, this is what the Indonesian government is offering, and this is what the international community supports. The time for peace permanent peace, is now."

Prior to the tsunami, the peace process had been suspended since 2003, when talks broke down and Indonesia's military launched an all-out offensive against GAM.

A member of the Acehnese panel, Damien Kingsbury of Australia's Deacon University, says GAM will insist that any peace agreement be put to a province-wide vote.

Mr. Kingsbury says GAM will also ask the government to clarify its autonomy offer, suggesting that the rebels' previous insistence on nothing short of full independence might be softening.

GAM declared a truce after the tsunami, saying it wanted to help with rescue efforts. But the military says it will not stop fighting until a formal cease-fire has been signed. The military claims to have killed around 200 GAM members in the last two months.

Finland's former president, Martti Ahtisaari, a career diplomat who is mediating the talks, says this round will determine whether or not the two sides have common ground for further negotiations.

"To my mind it's not what can be agreed here now, but whether we make enough progress that justifies the parties to come back to Helsinki for a continuation of those talks," he said. "But if it looks like it's a waste of time, and they are not prepared to come for another round, then we have failed."

The Indonesian military has been accused by international human rights groups of massive human rights violations against Aceh's civilian population.

GAM, which has been accused of human rights abuses on a smaller scale, has been fighting for independence from Indonesia since 1976.