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Indonesia's Aceh Province Begins Landmark Election Campaign


Campaigning has begun in Indonesia's tsunami-devastated province of Aceh for elections seen as the key to cementing a peace deal between the government and former rebels. As VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins reports from Jakarta, emotions are already running high, but the candidates have pledged to avoid violence during the campaign.

Aceh's campaign period kicked-off Friday with the 16 candidates for governor pledging not to use violence or intimidation in the run-up to the December 11 elections.

The elections will choose Aceh's governor and deputy governor, along with 19 regents and mayors across the province of more than four million people.

The December polls are a culmination of the peace process between the government and former rebels from the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM. Talks between the two had taken place intermittently for years, but peace finally took hold after the tsunami that swept the Indian Ocean in 2004, killing more than 160,000 people in Aceh.

The peace agreement called for direct election of the province's governor and deputy governor, positions previously filled by officials appointed in Jakarta.

The former rebels of GAM are fielding their own candidates, but the movement has split down the middle, between exiled political leaders who spent much of the conflict in Sweden, and those who served and fought in the field in Aceh. Each faction is fielding its own candidates.

Tensions between supporters of the rival GAM factions erupted into minor violence Thursday. Ahmad Humam Hamid, who is running for governor on behalf of the exile faction, was attacked by supporters of Irawandi Yusuf, the candidate of the domestic faction.

The mob vandalized several vehicles, including the one Hamid was riding in, but he was not injured.

Sidney Jones, the director of the International Crisis Group in Indonesia, says it is unlikely the split within GAM will lead to major campaign violence.

"I don't think that there will be serious violence during the campaign," said Jones. "There may be a few other episodes of this kind. But I don't see any instances of serious violence between GAM and non-GAM elements, nor do I think that the campaign as a whole is going to be particularly violent. I think for the most part it will go fairly smoothly."

Analysts and observers, however, say if the split in GAM is not healed, it may be difficult for the former rebel group to transform itself fully into an effective political movement.

The peace agreement signed in August 2005 ended nearly three decades of war that killed at least 15,000 people, the majority of them civilians.