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Cease-Fire Brings Uneasy Peace to Indonesia's Aceh Province - 2003-03-24

Separatist rebels in Indonesia's northern province of Aceh have agreed to lay down their weapons as part of a peace deal signed with the Indonesian government in December. But guerrillas from the Free Aceh Movement are cautious. It is almost a two-hour drive on the windy and hilly roads off Aceh's main highway to the remote area held by the separatist "Free Aceh Movement" - called GAM in Indonesia.

But on the way, you know you're getting there: Indonesian government offices lie abandoned, while the single-starred GAM flag flies over even the smallest of towns. Finally, the rebel guides my translator and I have picked up along the way, tell us to stop in a tiny town where two rows of shops face each other on an otherwise empty dirt road. A four-wheel-drive vehicle, filled mostly with armed teenagers, roars into town, marking the arrival of the GAM commander I have arranged to meet. GAM commander Sofyan Dawood oversees hundreds of rebels from this jungle outpost, the name of which I have promised not to reveal.

GAM signed a peace deal with the Indonesian government in December - an agreement brokered by the Swiss group, the Henri Dunant Center, or the HDC. The rebels agreed to give up their 26-year violent quest for independence in exchange for broad autonomy. In addition, the rebels have agreed to lay down their arms in exchange for promises that government troops will move into defensive positions. But the GAM rebels do not entirely trust the cease-fire. They estimate there are at least 500 well-trained militiamen in Central and East Aceh, who they say have been trained by the Indonesian military to provoke unrest.

The rebels charge that unrest includes recent demonstrations against the HDC peace monitors in Aceh. Rebel commander Dawood said the military wants to use demonstrations to make Aceh province appear unstable, justifying a military crackdown throughout the province. Indonesian troops forced the people to engage in demonstrations, he said, because they don't want the HDC monitors in Aceh. Earlier this month, two HDC staffers were injured in the town of Takengon, when a demonstration against the HDC turned violent. The crowd was angry that HDC monitors allegedly failed to follow-up on complaints made against GAM separatists.

Rebel commander Dawood also says armed militia groups are using threats to get Acehnese to join the militias and produces some local villagers to attest to this.

It is clear they have been coached about what to say to a visiting journalist. But despite this, some of the their emotions seemed genuine. One man told VOA he was given 24 hours to decide to be in a militia and was threatened. It took a bit of cajoling to find out what kind of threats had been used. A woman said the military came at 9 o'clock at night, threatened her, then burned down her house. She said two of her children are still in that town.

Senior GAM officials, like peace negotiator Nashiruddin, said they want to resolve the issue of militias through talks with the government. And until Indonesia's military, called the TNI, disarms the militias, the rebels will not let their guard down. "Because they attack us, they have guns, and the TNI acknowledge that they have guns - so we have the right to use the guns to defend ourselves," Nashiruddin said.

Senior Indonesian military officials, however, say it is GAM, and not the government, trying to manipulate the peace process.

Brigadier General Safzen Noerdin, the Indonesian military liaison to Ache's peace process, said there are no militias in Aceh because none were ever trained by the military, and no one is armed. The general said the people in Central Aceh are very strong and the demonstrations are spontaneous and not being manipulated.

David Gorman, the head of the Henri Dunant Center in Aceh, said the situation bears watching. "The agreement says specifically that there should be no new paramilitary groups. And both parties know that. It's often hard to say; we haven't seen any confirmed incidents that we've been able to investigate by any so-called militia. But we are watching that very closely and that is something that does concern us," Mr. Gorman said.

Incidents of violence and other complaints are being investigated by monitoring teams from the HDC, as well as government and rebel representatives.