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Indonesia Arrests Aceh Negotiators - 2003-05-09

In another sign that the a peace plan for Indonesia's Aceh province may be close to collapse, Indonesian authorities have arrested four members of the rebels' negotiating team. The arrests come as thousands of Indonesian troops are heading for the province, and a government deadline for a resumption of peace talks is fast approaching. Officials say four out of six top negotiators for the Free Aceh Movement were arrested Friday at the airport in Aceh's provincial capital, Banda Aceh. The four took part in months of talks with the Indonesian government, which culminated in the signing of a historic peace agreement in December.

Once the accord was signed, the negotiators became members of the Joint Security Committee - a body made up of rebel leaders, members of the Indonesian government and international monitors - whose purpose was to oversee a cease-fire between the two sides. Friday's arrests may have been a technicality; a police official said they were traveling without permission, which the peace agreement makes necessary. Chief negotiator Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba intended to go to Malaysia, reportedly for a routine medical check-up, and the other three were said to be headed for the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.

But the arrests came amid increasing tension, with a government deadline for a resumption of peace talks coming in a few days, and 6,000 Indonesian troops already en route to the province, in case fighting resumes.

Earlier this month, the government set a deadline of May 12 for the rebels to accept an offer of increased autonomy in Aceh, as an alternative to the full independence the rebels have been seeking. If the rebels refuse to accept autonomy, the government says, they will face renewed military action. The Free Aceh Movement agreed to the autonomy plan when it signed the December agreement. But the rebels then said increased autonomy was simply a step on the way to full independence. The government says it will not allow the province to break away. The United States, the European Union and Japan issued a statement Friday calling on both sides to use peaceful means to resolve their differences. The 6,000 troops en route by ship from the main island of Java are expected to be on the ground in Aceh on May 13, one day after the government deadline expires.