- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 10, 2002

GENEVA The Indonesian government and rebels from Aceh province signed a landmark accord yesterday to end the 26-year separatist war on the tip of Sumatra island. But the two sides left the issue of disarming the province to further negotiation.

The accord, signed in Geneva, grants Aceh wide-ranging autonomy but does not allow for independence. The war has claimed 12,000 lives in the past decade.

"Both sides have thus agreed that, from now on, enmity between them should be considered a thing of the past," read the six-page accord.

U.S. mediator Gen. Anthony Zinni said: "Both parties represented here really want this agreement to work. This is a good starting point. But it is just the beginning, not the end."

The war, which has roots going back more than 130 years, is considered one of the world's oldest armed conflicts.

"Given the firm commitment of both sides for peace, I see no reason why we cannot obtain this goal we so desire," said Wiryono Sastro Handoyo, the top Indonesian government negotiator, after signing the accord. "There is no obstacle we can't overcome."

Zaini Abdullah, who signed for the leadership of the Free Aceh Movement, said: "The achievement today is the direct result of the struggle and sacrifices of our people."

The insurgency has been dubbed "The Forgotten War" because it never attracted international attention in the same way that other conflicts, such as East Timor's, did.

But the Aceh struggle is seen as the most dangerous of Indonesia's many internal conflicts because of the rebels' insistence on independence and the government's resolve not to allow the province to break away a move that many believe would lead to the disintegration of the ethnically and religiously diverse nation of 210 million people.

If the solution envisaged by the peace agreement which also provides for autonomy and control over revenues from the province's timber and natural gas resources proves successful, it also could be implemented in other secessionist trouble spots in Indonesia.

The peace accord sidestepped the sensitive issue of disarmament and demilitarization of Aceh, a Holland-sized province of 4.1 million people on the northern tip of Sumatra. Instead, a joint security committee consisting of all parties to the peace agreement was tasked with "designing and implementing a mutually agreed upon process of demilitarization."

In Aceh, Isnander Al-Faseh, a rebel spokesman, said the rebels would withdraw their forces to base camps and cease all attacks against government troops. But he accused the security forces of bringing in reinforcements for a possible operation in the north of the province.

"This may be the work of hard-line elements within the Indonesian military who do not want this peace deal to succeed," Mr. Al-Faseh said.

Insurgents have been fighting for independence since 1870, when Dutch colonialists occupied the sultanate. They assisted Indonesia's successful 1945-49 war against the Dutch but began a decade-long uprising in the early 1950s against Jakarta's rule. The current rebellion began in 1976.

Both sides have been under intense international pressure to make concessions. The government has offered the timber- and oil-rich province sweeping autonomy, including the power to hold regional elections in 2004, which the Free Aceh Movement is likely to win. Although the separatists have not dropped their core insistence on independence, they have agreed to participate in the political process.

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