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Indonesia's Aceh Rebels Demand Cease-fire at Helsinki Peace Talks

Negotiators from the Indonesian government and the rebel Free Aceh Movement have arrived for a third round of peace talks in Finland. But the rebels demanded that a cease-fire be called before discussions turn to more substantive issues.

The peace talks opened in Helsinki Tuesday with negotiators for the rebel movement, known as GAM, calling for a quick cessation of military operations to protect civilians in Indonesia's Aceh province.

A GAM spokesman, Bakhtiar Abdullah, says his group is concerned about military operations in Aceh, Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged and war-torn province, located on the northern tip of Sumatra Island.

"Although we have negotiation processes in progress, but the condition on the field is very worrying, because there's an escalation of military activities, and, in the process, the civilians are being hard hit," he said.

After the December 26 tsunami that devastated the province, leaving more than 200,000 Acehnese dead or missing, GAM declared a unilateral truce. But the Indonesian military says it will continue combat operations, until a formal cease-fire has been declared.

GAM has been fighting for independence in the oil-and-gas-rich province since 1976, in a conflict that has left more than 12,000 people dead, most of them civilians.

The talks will center around a special autonomy package proposed for the province by the government, as well as amnesty for the rebels, security issues and international monitoring.

GAM spokesman, Mr. Bakhtiar, says the rebel demand of independence for Aceh is not scheduled to be discussed at this time.

"Firstly, we'd just like to explain that independence is not on the table, but we are willing to still negotiate on other options, and this is yet to be discussed on this coming round," he added.

An Indonesian government spokesman, Dino Djalal, says the government remains cautiously optimistic about the peace talks. He says the government has gone to the talks.

"With the best of intentions, with the objective of finding a peaceful, political settlement. But, as you know, it takes two to tango. We hope that, during those six days, there will be a substantial agreement on key issues affecting the political settlement." he noted.

The first round of talks was held in Helsinki in January. Before that, the two sides had not met formally since the peace process collapsed two years earlier. The second round in February was seen as an important step forward, with both sides agreeing to discuss autonomy. Before that, GAM had refused to give up its independence demand.

The talks, organized by the peace mediators, Crisis Management Initiative, under the leadership of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, are scheduled to end on Sunday.