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Indonesia Offering 'Olive Branch' to Rebels

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 28, 2005; Page A21

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Jan. 27 -- Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono offered separatist rebels in the tsunami-devastated province of Aceh an amnesty and greater autonomy in exchange for a cease-fire on the eve of new peace talks in Helsinki.

"We are coming with an olive branch," said Andi Mallarangeng, a presidential spokesman. "Let's move forward to rebuilding Aceh within the framework of the Republic of Indonesia."

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The government's offer stopped short of granting Aceh full independence, long the principal goal of the rebel Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM. Previous talks failed in May 2003.

"They are willing to meet each other," said Martti Ahtisaari, a former president of Finland and a veteran mediator, the Reuters news agency reported from Helsinki. The talks could begin Friday.

Analysts in Indonesia said both sides could benefit by being seen as willing to talk, especially while international attention is focused on Aceh following the Dec. 26 tsunami, which killed about 100,000 in the province at the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island.

"Since there's nothing left practically to fight about -- Aceh is completely devastated -- what are they fighting for?" said Wiryono Sastrohandojo, a retired Indonesian diplomat and the government's former chief negotiator in the peace talks. "So maybe, at least for the time being, they'd like to concentrate on rebuilding the place. That's the challenge, really."

The Indonesian government delegation is led by the chief security minister, Widodo Adi Sutjipto, accompanied by Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin and Information Minister Sofyan Djalil.

The GAM team includes Malik Mahmud and Zaini Abdullah, leaders of an exile government that has been based in Stockholm since the 1970s. The conflict began in 1976, with the rebels' goal being independence from Indonesia. Since martial law was imposed in May 2003 and then softened to a state of civil emergency a year later, more than 2,000 alleged rebels have been killed, according to the military.

The day after the tsunami, GAM announced a unilateral cease-fire and government officials said they would cease offensive operations. But since then, the military has sent thousands more troops to Aceh and has continued to attack and kill rebels. On Sunday, a military spokesman said that 208 rebels had been killed since the tsunami.

Military commanders insist that there is no "offensive operation" underway against GAM and that any attacks are defensive, aimed at rebels who are disrupting the relief effort. The rebels say the military is trying to provoke them into reacting, but that they are under orders not to respond.

Resentment of the military and police is strong among Aceh residents because of the long-running military operation and the martial-law restrictions and subsequent civil emergency, said Otto Syamsuddin Ishak, an Acehnese sociologist and program director for Imparsial, a Jakarta-based human rights group.

The Indonesian parliament granted Aceh special autonomy in 2001, with greater powers of self-rule and a larger share of its own revenue. The move was aimed at quelling desires for independence. But the law was never implemented properly, and many Acehnese say they still feel exploited by Jakarta.

M. Syafii Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism, who recently returned from Aceh, said he had found that "on the one hand, people still want to be part of Indonesia." On the other, he said, "they strongly criticized the Indonesian government for not being sensitive to Aceh's development needs. They think that Jakarta is corrupt. They feel the Jakarta elite look down on the Acehnese."

Special correspondent Yayu Yuniar contributed to this report.


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