Indonesia withdrawns last troops from Aceh province

Indonesia started pulling out the last of 24,000 troops from tsunami-ravaged Aceh province today, a key component of a peace accord to end a three-decade civil war with separatist rebels.

Some 3,350 soldiers carrying automatic rifles and heavy bags boarded four Navy ships in the port town of Lhokseumawe, just days after Free Aceh Movement rebels handed over their weapons and disbanded their military wing.

The troops will leave later today, with hundreds of soldiers and police following over the next two days, said Lt. Col. Eri Soetiko at a ceremony marking the completion of disarmament and decommissioning, the most delicate phase of a peace agreement signed in August.

Efforts to end the 29-year civil war gained momentum after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck on December 26, last year, leaving at least 156,000 of the province’s people dead or missing and a half-million others homeless.

The rebels and the military each said they did not want to add to people’s suffering and hammered out an agreement in which both sides made major concessions.

Free Aceh Movement representative Irwandi Yusuf and Pieter Feith, head of the 240-strong EU peace monitoring mission, were among the hundreds of people who gathered at Krueng Guekeuh Port to send off the troops.

Yusuf said he hoped their departure signalled a permanent end to fighting that has claimed 15,000 lives since 1976, many of them civilians caught up in army sweeps of remote villages.

He said his former fighters were looking forward to taking part in local elections next year.

As part of the peace deal, the rebels agreed to hand over all of their self-declared 840 weapons and, in an about-face, gave up their demand for independence.

The government vowed to withdraw more than half of its nearly 50,000 garrison from Aceh and to give the region limited self-government and control over much of the oil and gas-rich province’s mineral wealth.

So far, the deal has stuck with the help of international peace monitors, who said the former rebels could now focus on politics instead of war.

“Now GAM can use ballots, not bullets, to fulfil their aspirations,” said Feith, referring to the Free Aceh Movement by its Indonesian acronym.

Former fighters have come down from Aceh’s forested hills in recent months and several GAM leaders have returned to their homeland after more than 25 years of self-exile.

Several, however, have refused to come back, wary that the peace deal, like a 2003 accord, would collapse and that they would be arrested or killed.

Aceh’s military commander Maj. Gen. Supiadin guaranteed the security of all returning rebels.

Aceh’s conflict first erupted in 1873 when Dutch colonialists occupied the previously independent sultanate. The Acehnese assisted Indonesia’s successful 1945-49 war of independence against the Dutch, but launched a decade-long uprising in the early 1950s – this time against Jakarta’s rule.

The current rebellion began in 1976.


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