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Indonesia plans Jan. talks with rebels in tsunami zone
Updated: 2005-01-19 15:25

Indonesia said on Wednesday it hoped to hold talks with separatist rebels operating in tsunami-hit Aceh province at the end of this month to try to ease security concerns amid a massive humanitarian operation.

Fears of attacks on aid workers in Aceh have dogged international relief efforts on the northern tip of Sumatra island since the huge tsunami triggered by a Dec. 26 earthquake.

"Our hope is not too much. It is indeed realistic to hold a meeting at the end of this month," Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda told a news conference. "The place and the date cannot be confirmed right now."

The tsunami disaster, which has killed some 115,000 people in Aceh and North Sumatra provinces, had prompted increased efforts to solve the separatist problem, he said.

"Behind the cloud there must be a silver lining. Behind the scenes a process is happening toward reconciliation," Wirajuda said.

The disaster underscored the need to resolve differences, he said, adding that the people of Aceh needed time to recover from their long suffering and from the latest disaster.

"There is no other way than having security and stability. We are serious about reconciliation," he said. Government officials and commanders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) military wing have been in informal contact since last month's devastating tsunami, Wirajuda said.

The top political leaders of GAM live in Sweden.

A "gentlemen's agreement" not to worsen the situation was in place, Wirajuda said.

The rebels have waged a rebellion against rule by Jakarta since 1976 and the province is under a state of civil emergency.

The leaders of GAM have repeatedly said they welcome international relief efforts spearheaded by the United Nations and would not attack aid workers or convoys.

Formal talks between the rebels and the Indonesian government broke down in May 2003 after three years. After that the government imposed martial law on the province.

In the following days, tens of thousands of troops were sent into Aceh to bring the insurgency under control. The state of martial law was downgraded to a civil emergency last year. More than 12,000 people have died in the conflict since the 1970s.

Wirajuda refused to disclose details of the planned talks.

The Geneva-based Henri Dunant Center for Humanitarian Dialogue mediated the previous series of talks that collapsed in Tokyo.

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