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Indonesia Begins Troop Withdrawal from Aceh Province

Indonesia is beginning to withdraw thousands of central government troops, known as the TNI, from Aceh Province, in keeping with a peace accord signed last month between the government and separatist rebels that ends nearly 29 years of conflict.

For the first time in years, the streets of Banda Aceh are alive in the evenings with people visiting cafes and parks - something that was unthinkable during the long and brutal conflict here between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian military.

Human-rights groups have long accused the security forces of massive human-rights violations against the province's civilian population.

Acehnese say they welcome the withdrawal of military and police forces from their embattled province on the northern tip of Sumatra Island.

A contingent is due to depart from the town of the Lhaksamawe on Sunday. Thirteen-hundred police already left the province Thursday.

Thirty-seven-year-old Salman Farsi, a Banda Aceh resident, says he is happy the TNI troops are leaving, and hopes their departure will bring peace to the province.

"We will be very happy after the government withdraws the troops from Lhaksamawe and we hope more withdrawal will be coming. TNI really disturb us," He said. "We want to work freely and we want to live peacefully. Oh it is very, very good thing they are leaving."

According to the peace accord, the separatist Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, must turn in all 840 of its weapons. In exchange, a total of 32,000 police and army troops are due out by the end of the year.

All told, the conflict cost more than 15,000 lives, and most of the victims were civilians.

Twenty-eight-year-old Atip was born just after GAM began fighting for independence in 1976. He says the military killed his uncle, accusing him of being a GAM member, but Atip says he was just a simple fisherman. He says as an Acehnese, he wants the military to leave his province.

Senior GAM leader Irawandi Yusuf says even though he was jailed and tortured by the military, he holds no grudge, and simply wants to see the peace process work.

"For myself, I am forgiving," he said. "I have been badly tortured during my detention in the police headquarters in Banda Aceh. I saw several deaths of torture in front of me. But I do not have any burden in my mind if I forgive them."

The December Indian Ocean tsunami destroyed much of Aceh and killed more than 160,000 people, but it also helped pave the way for peace.

Earlier peace talks between GAM and the government failed, but after the tsunami, both sides redoubled their efforts to end the conflict.