Indonesian soldiers lugged guns and heavy bags up gangplanks Thursday as they completed the final phase of a troop reduction in tsunami-ravaged Aceh province — a key step in an accord with separatist rebels to end a 29-year war.
The last of 24,000 troops pulled out on five Navy ships and a Hercules air carrier, just days after Free Aceh Movement rebels completed the handover of their weapons and disbanded their military wing.
Peace efforts picked up pace after an earthquake struck off Aceh’s coast one year ago, causing a tsunami that swept away 156,000 lives in the province and left a half-million others homeless.
The rebels and the government decided they did not want to add to people’s suffering and reached a landmark agreement seven months later. The move was credited with helping smooth efforts to get relief to tsunami survivors.
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 to send off the nearly 3,800 soldiers — the last batch slated to leave under the deal.
Prospects for peace
“I hope this really means peace is at hand,” Yusuf said, adding that the former insurgents were looking forward to taking part in local elections next year.
Several earlier attempts to end the fighting that broke out in 1976 and claimed 15,000 lives unraveled amid bitterness and mistrust, but analysts say the conditions for peace were more conducive this time.
The rebels agreed to hand over all of their self-declared 840 weapons and gave up their long-held demand for independence. The government agreed 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 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.
Some, however, have refused to come back because they are wary the peace deal would collapse and that they would be arrested or killed.
After a 2003 accord fell apart, the Indonesian military kicked out foreign observers and restarted combat operations.
But Aceh’s military commander, Maj. Gen. Supiadin, on Thursday guaranteed the security of all returning rebels, singling out the group’s top exiled leader in Sweden, Hasan Tiro. “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.
Many of those who died in the fighting were civilians caught up in army sweeps of remote villages.
Supiadin on Thursday apologized for any atrocities carried out by his men, but insisted they were only trying to maintain the unity of the country.