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Aceh Peace Talks Begin in Tokyo - 2003-05-17

The Indonesian government and separatist rebels met for peace talks in Tokyo as scheduled Saturday, and Indonesian authorities subsequently released five members of the rebel negotiating team whose detention had threatened to derail the talks.

The two sides agreed to sit down together after a day of uncertainty about whether the talks would proceed at all.

Rebel leader Mahmood Malik had expressed doubts about the talks Saturday morning, after arriving from his Swedish base and learning his comrades had been arrested when they tried to leave for Japan.

An Indonesian delegate in Tokyo said he did not consider the presence of the five negotiators to be essential in the peace talks. That point was flatly disputed by Mr. Malik, who said the talks were unlikely to go ahead, unless his five colleagues were freed.

International mediators spent much of the day going back and forth between the two sides, and later in the evening, it was announced that the talks would start after all.

Authorities in Indonesia then announced that the five members of the Free Aceh Movement had been released. But it was not clear if they would be allowed to leave the province to attend the Tokyo talks.

The U.S. State Department on Friday had expressed concern over the arrests, and called for Indonesia to ensure the talks be allowed to proceed with negotiators selected by each side.

The talks, sponsored by the Japanese Foreign Ministry, are a last-minute effort to salvage a peace treaty that appears in imminent danger of collapse.

The treaty was signed in December, raising hopes for an end to 27 years of civil war in Aceh. The treaty gives considerable autonomy to the province.

But the two sides have interpreted the treaty differently. The rebels say it is just a stepping stone to eventual independence. The government says it will not allow the province to break away.

Indonesia has sent thousands of extra troops to the region to prepare for a massive push against the separatists, if they do not agree to Jakarta's terms.

Indonesia's top security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, gave a none-too-subtle indication of Jakarta's intentions Friday, after a meeting with his advisers.

He says his forces are ready to carry out an "operation" in Aceh. If President Megawati Sukarnoputri gives the order, he says, the military is ready to go.