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Indonesia To Reopen Talks With Separatists

Proposal Sparked By Informal Truce

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page A20

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, Jan. 19 -- Indonesian officials plan to reopen negotiations with separatist rebels in Aceh by the end of this month, building on an informal truce that took hold after the province was battered by the tsunami last month, Foreign Minister Noer Hassan Wirajuda said Wednesday.

Though Wirajuda was guarded about the prospects for the talks, they would mark the first formal contacts between the government and the Free Aceh Movement since talks broke down in May 2003 and the Indonesian security forces launched a new offensive.

"It is our hope . . . and this is realistic, that at the end of the month we can have a [formal] meeting," Wirajuda told reporters in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. He said the date and location of the negotiations had yet to be set.

The momentum comes as pressure mounted from foreign countries to resolve the conflict so clashes do not interfere with the massive international effort providing relief to tsunami survivors and rebuilding Indonesia's westernmost province.

Wirajuda confirmed that Indonesian officials have had informal contacts with the rebels since the tsunami. He said the sides had already reached a "gentleman's agreement" not to exacerbate the situation in Aceh.

"Behind the cloud, there must be a silver lining. Behind the scenes, a process is happening toward reconciliation," he said at a news conference. He added: "There is no other way than having security and stability. We are serious about reconciliation."

Leaders of the rebel movement declared a cease-fire after the tsunami and have said they hope internal pressure will push the government toward negotiations. Abdullah Zaini, a separatist representative in Sweden, told the Associated Press that the movement was waiting to see the specific proposal for negotiations. He said the rebels preferred to hold talks outside Indonesia.

Indonesian officials have warned that foreign relief workers and journalists could be targeted by the rebels. On these grounds, officials have required foreigners in Aceh to register with the government if they travel outside the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and the main west coast city of Meulaboh, raising the prospect they may be banned from some areas or required to take military escorts.

Though relief workers said the registration requirement had not interfered with their activities, they warned that more onerous restrictions could disrupt the provision of humanitarian assistance.

Spokesmen for the Free Aceh Movement have accused the government of fear-mongering. They said they welcomed international assistance and pledged not to attack relief workers.

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