Indonesian police pulled out of Aceh province in a goodwill gesture Wednesday as rebels prepared to hand over hundreds of weapons — the most delicate phase in a landmark accord to end one of Asia’s longest-running wars.
The peace deal, which could help the flow of aid to victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami, is seen as the region’s best chance in years to end nearly three decades of fighting that has claimed 15,000 lives, many of them civilians.
But previous deals have collapsed — the most recent in 2003 — and its success depends almost entirely on the fragile 3 1/2 month period of disarmament and demobilization.
“So far all the signs have been quite encouraging,” said Rizal Sukma, a political analyst and member of the nongovernmental Aceh Recovery Forum. “But I still see that the lack of trust between the two sides could be a very critical stumbling block.
“This is a deep-rooted conflict that has gone on for more than three decades, we can’t expect it to disappear overnight.”
The peace deal — signed in Finland last month by Indonesian Justice and Human Rights Minister Hamid Awaluddin and exiled Free Aceh Movement leader Malik Mahmud — called for an immediate cessation of hostilities.
Rebels must surrender weapons
It also said the rebels would have to surrender all 840 of their weapons — a figure provided by the separatists themselves — before the year’s end. In return, the military would withdraw around half of its 57,000 security forces from the province on Sumatra island’s northern tip.
The last peace deal broke down during the sensitive decommissioning period.
In a sign of good faith, 1,300 members of Indonesia’s elite mobile police brigade paraded in the northern port town of Lhokseumawe on Wednesday before boarding a warship that will carry them to Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta.
“We decided not to wait,” said National Police Chief Gen. Sutanto. “We want to show that we are taking this peace effort seriously.”
Free Aceh Movement rebels, better known by their Indonesian acronym GAM, said they would hand over a quarter of their armory to EU and Southeast Asian peace monitors deployed across the province by Saturday.
The monitors will inspect, register and cut each firearm into three parts.
In the days that follow, the military will pull out nearly 7,000 of 32,000 soldiers and police slated to leave by the Dec. 31 deadline.
Despite some last minute jitters, there have been only a few allegations of foul play, none of them sparking much controversy.
Pieter Feith, the Dutch diplomat overseeing the 220-strong international monitoring mission, issued a statement Wednesday saying GAM violated the agreement when a group of fighters opened fire on soldiers in North Aceh on Saturday, injuring two.
He asked GAM for the names of the fighters involved.
Rebel spokesman Irwandi Yusaf said he had been to the location and maintained it was unclear who fired first, but said he “respected” the decision by Feith’s Aceh Monitoring Mission.
‘Small problems ... are inevitable’
“Small problems in the process are inevitable,” he said.
Efforts to end the 29-year civil war picked up pace after the Dec. 26 tsunami crashed into coastlines, killing some 131,000 people in Aceh and leaving a half-million others homeless.
With so many lives lost and the province’s infrastructure left in shambles, neither side wanted to add to people’s problems by keeping up the fight, according to Vice President Jusuf Kalla.
The accord became possible after the rebels agreed to renounce their long-held demand for full independence.
It provides amnesty for Free Aceh Movement rebels — more than 1,400 of whom have already been released from prisons — and gives the region limited self-government and control over 70 percent of the revenue from the province’s mineral wealth.