Aceh rebels agree to work towards peace


Indonesia and Aceh separatists have agreed to work towards a lasting peace deal to help rebuild the province which took the brunt of the December 26 tsunami, saying after talks in Helsinki they would meet again soon.

After three decades of fighting which have claimed 12,000 lives, Jakarta and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) put aside their differences on Saturday to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Aceh, where 230,000 people died or disappeared in the tsunami.

The vast scale of the tragedy prompted ceasefire offers and Indonesia sent its most senior delegation so far to meet GAM's exiled leaders, who have been based in Stockholm since 1976.

Jakarta is offering limited autonomy for the gas-rich province of four million people on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra. The GAM has rejected that in the past, but the Finnish mediators said it formed the basis of these talks.

"We have an in-principle agreement to meet again in the near future to discuss a comprehensive peace settlement under the umbrella of self-autonomy," Indonesia's information minister, Mr Sofyan Djalil, told reporters in Helsinki.

The Finnish mediator, former President Martti Ahtisaari who has previously brokered peace in conflict zones such as Kosovo, told a news conference that the next round of Helsinki talks would happen soon: "I don't expect it to take months."

He said that after such a long conflict it was not realistic for such foes to "start loving each other" so soon.

But GAM Prime Minister Malik Mahmud, while speaking of "differences that need to be ironed out", went as far as to say that the two delegations had formed "a close relationship".