Troops begin Aceh pull-out amid hope of lasting peace

Almost 15,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in the often brutal struggle between Indonesian state forces and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

The peace deal is the product of talks that came about after last year's Boxing Day tsunami, which killed at least 120,000 people in Aceh. It is being hailed as the best chance for peace since the conflict broke out.

Around 1,200 Indonesian troops left northern Aceh on board naval vessels yesterday in the first of a series of withdrawals. Indonesia has agreed to withdraw all security forces it sent specifically to fight the rebellion.

In return, GAM will give up its demands for independence and accept a form of local self-government. The rebels have agreed to hand over their weapons.

Placed under martial law and sealed off from the outside world, for years Aceh disappeared from international consciousness, apart from the warnings from human rights groups of brutal repression.

But with December's tsunami, all that changed. Faced with a major catastrophe in Aceh they could not cope with, the Indonesian authorities were forced to open up the province to international aid. The sudden interest put pressure on the two sides to talk.

Leaders from both sides also say the scale of the disaster forced them to rethink their attitudes to Aceh. Credit has been given too to President Susilo Bambang Yudhyono, elected last year, who has been prepared to compromise to resolve the conflict in a way his predecessors never were.

The government has agreed to GAM's demand that it be allowed to become a local political party.

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