Indonesia's President Abdurrahman Wahid said today he was open to a vote on independence in the rebellious province of Aceh, something many fear could trigger the disintegration of the huge archipelago.

His comments came as the military, charged with years of human rights abuses in the fiercely independent province, said it would start pulling out troops from Aceh this month after conceding its hard-line approach had failed.

"I support a referendum as their right. If we can do that in East Timor, why not in Aceh?" he told foreign reporters.

"But that is not the question. The question is: If there is a referendum, when? We will not be rushed on these things.

"The question of a referendum is up to the people themselves," Wahid said, adding that such a move would not be easy.

Since coming to power late last month, Wahid has made several conciliatory gestures to oil- and gas-rich Aceh and has taken charge of trying to end the problems there that many analysts say pose the biggest threat to Indonesia's already fragile unity.

Earlier this year, Jakarta allowed East Timorese to vote on independence, which almost 80 percent of the population chose, sparking widespread bloodshed and raising fears that other parts of the diverse country would follow suit.

Thousands have died in Aceh, where a low-level guerrilla war to end Jakarta's rule has been waged since the 1970s. Demands for independence have mounted since East Timor voted to break away.

Despite Jakarta's policy shift, about 100,000 people rallied in Aceh today demanding their homeland be given a vote on independence.

The military also named an Acehnese as deputy armed forces chief in another apparently conciliatory gesture to Acehnese, who some analysts say have increasingly been driven into the separatist fold by the savage tactics of the Indonesian military.