Indonesia

Indonesian president orders troops to halt Aceh offensive

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Jakarta (dpa) - Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has ordered military forces in Aceh to halt their offensive while negotiators for the government and rebels work on cementing a peace deal, a local media report said Thursday.

The president's order came after reports of continued clashes between the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) in the tsunami-ravaged province and suspected rebels with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) as both sides were completing a draft peace agreement over the weekend in Helsinki, Finland.

"The president has asked TNI chief General Endriartono Sutarto not to launch any more offensives against the separatists for the sake of the peace deal,'' Cabinet Secretary Sudi Silalahi was quoted as saying after a cabinet meeting by the Jakarta Post.

Rebels from the nearly three-decade-long independence movement claimed that at least five insurgents, four soldiers and two civilians have been killed since the weekend. The Indonesian military claimed four separatists and one soldier were killed and two soldiers wounded in two separate clashes. "The president made it very clear in the [cabinet] meeting that the TNI must take a defensive posture in case of attacks by GAM fighters,'' communications and information minister Sofyan Djalil said, adding that the president asked military leaders to make soldiers in the field aware of points contained in the tentative peace deal.

"There is a possibility that they [the soldiers] will remain in their barracks in the meantime,'' Sofyan Djalil said. The draft accord, reached after five rounds of negotiations in Helsinki, where the two sides have been meeting in the aftermath of the December 26 tsunami, ultimately calls for the withdrawal of government troops in the region and the disarmament of the rebels.

Negotiators from both sides have agreed not to disclose details of the draft agreement to give time for rebel leaders to discuss it with their fighters in Aceh and for government leaders to meet with lawmakers from the House of Representatives to discuss, among other things, changing the existing law to allow for local political parties to be formed in Aceh - a key rebel demand.

Indonesia and GAM are scheduled to sign an official peace agreement on August 15 in Finland.

The last peace deal collapsed in May 2003 after Jakarta arrested rebel negotiators and militias attacked peace monitors in Aceh, forcing them to abandon the province and prompting the government to launch a major military offensive aimed at crushing the rebels.

Jakarta and the Aceh rebels agreed to restart negotiations in the wake of the tsunami, which left about 170,000 people dead or missing in Indonesia, mostly in Aceh. The return to talks was aimed at smoothing the way for reconstruction of the devastated province.

In the days after the tsunami, both sides unofficially agreed to freeze operations, but the informal truce has been ignored by both sides, with the military claiming to have killed several hundred alleged rebels since the disaster struck.

GAM has been fighting for an independent state in Aceh, a resource-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra, since 1976. More than 12,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in the conflict. dpa eu ls

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