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Indonesia Releases Aceh Rebels Under Peace Deal Amnesty

The Indonesian government has begun releasing hundreds of separatist Acehnese rebels as part of a peace deal signed by the two sides earlier this month.

Hundreds of rebels from the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, walked free from prison Wednesday after Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed an unconditional amnesty granting their freedom.

The prisoner release is a key part of a peace agreement signed between the government and GAM on August 15 that ended nearly 29 years of conflict in Aceh province.

GAM spokesman, Bahtiar Abdulah, says the releases show the government is sticking to the deal, which stipulates all political prisoners must be released 15-days after the signing of the agreement.

"This is the first step to a bigger process of building trust, because by releasing these people they have already started to implement the whole part of the process," he said.

Indonesian officials say 74 prisoners were released from jail in Bandung, southeast of Jakarta, early Wednesday morning, and another 169 were freed in the Javanese city of Surabaya and flown to Aceh.

Some 1,500 prisoners are due to be freed under the amnesty.

Daniel Sparingga, a political analyst with Airlangga University in Jakarta says the releases are vital to the success of the peace process.

"I think the government is trying to get the schedule on track," he said. "They believe that the commitment to follow the protocol agreement is very crucial and very important."

The peace deal was agreed after GAM gave up its demand for independence, and on September 15 the rebels are scheduled to hand over their weapons to the authorities.

The conflict in Aceh cost the lives of more than 12,000 people, the majority of them civilians.

Earlier peace efforts failed, but the December tsunami, which devastated the province and killed more than 160,000 people, brought the warring factions to the negotiating table as they pledged to help the region rebuild.