updated 12/29/2005 12:22:59 PM ET 2005-12-29T17:22:59

Indonesia started the final phase of a troop reduction in tsunami-ravaged Aceh province on Thursday, a key step in a peace agreement with separatist rebels that was propelled forward by the disaster one year ago.

Some 3,800 soldiers carrying automatic rifles and heavy bags boarded five Navy ships and a Hercules air carrier in the port town of Lhokseumawe, just days after Free Aceh Movement rebels handed over their weapons and disbanded their military wing.

The rebels also gave up their demand for independence, effectively ending the separatist insurgency that has killed at least 15,000 people since 1976.

Under the peace agreement, Indonesia is pulling out about 24,000 security forces and leaving behind roughly an equal number.

The soldiers’ departure on Thursday marks the final wave of the pullout, said Lt. Col. Eri Soetiko, a military spokesman.

Efforts to end the 29-year civil war moved forward after the massive earthquake struck off the coast of Aceh on Dec. 26, 2004, causing a tsunami that left at least 156,000 of the province’s people dead or missing and a half million homeless.

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

Free Aceh Movement representative Irwandi Yusuf and Pieter Feith, head of the 240-strong European Union peace monitoring mission, were among the hundreds of people who gathered at the port Thursday to send off the troops.

Yusuf said he hoped their departure signaled a permanent end to the fighting that has gripped the province of 4 million people on the northern tip of Sumatra island. He said his former insurgents were looking forward to taking part in local elections next year. There are an estimated 3,000 rebels in the group.

As part of the peace deal, 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.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in a tsunami commemoration speech earlier this week that the deal was “an example of how a new hope for peace can emerge out of the ruin of destruction.”

'Ballots, not bullets'
The accord was reached with the help of international peace monitors, who said Thursday the former rebels could now focus on politics instead of war.

“Now GAM can use ballots, not bullets, to fulfill 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 rebel leaders have returned to their homeland after more than 25 years of self-exile. Several, however, have refused to come back because they are wary the peace deal, like a 2003 accord, would collapse and they would be arrested or killed.

That peace deal collapsed after the Indonesian military kicked out foreign observers and restarted combat operations against the rebels.

But Aceh’s military commander, Maj. Gen. Supiadin, on Thursday guaranteed the security of all returning rebels and singled out the rebels’ exiled leader in Sweden, Hasan Tiro, saying, “We’d consider his presence in Aceh as a commitment for peace.”

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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