Aceh rebels could leave Sweden soon

Aceh rebels exiled in Sweden since the 1970s hope to return home soon after agreeing with Indonesian officials to make peace in the troubled province, a leading rebel told AFP as he returned from a week of gruelling peace talks which ended in Helsinki late Sunday.

“We have always wanted to go back … I love Stockholm, but at the same time we have our obligation to the (Aceh) people and we have our commitment to the peace process,” said Free Aceh Movement (GAM) spokesman Bakhtiar Abdullah.

“We have missed many of our loved ones. Even when they left us, they passed away, we couldn’t go back. The feeling of longing is always there,” he told AFP on arriving at the Stockholm airport Arlanda after a fifth and apparently final round of peace talks in Helsinki.

After nearly a week of tough negotiations in the Finnish capital, the Indonesian government and GAM announced on Sunday that they had reached a deal to end 30 years of fighting in the province that has left nearly 15,000 people dead.

The parties said they would return to Helsinki next month to officially sign the peace deal.

Abdullah and the rest of the GAM leaders fled Aceh and sought exile in Sweden after the group launched its fight for independence in 1976, accusing Jakarta of abuses and of exploiting the province’s rich oil and gas resources.

When the two parties met for a first round of Helsinki talks in January, it was the first time they had met face to face since May 2003, when peace attempts gave way to a massive military operation and the province was placed under martial law.

The renewed peace efforts were prompted by the Indian Ocean tsunami last December that wreaked havoc in the region, killing 131,000 in Aceh alone.

“Had it not been for the tsunami, maybe Aceh would have been secluded from the outside world for another few years, because not so many people knew about the conflict and the tsunami kind of exposed the situation,” Abdullah said, pointing out that a call from the international community for enough stability to deliver aid to the tsunami-struck province had helped bring about the accord.

“You have to create a conducive environment … You have to secure the area first before things can be expedited,” he said.

Although the details of the new peace deal will not be revealed until after the signing on August 15, it is clear that both sides have made significant concessions in order to bring an end to the bloodshed.

GAM gave up its demand for full independence and said it would disarm, while the government has announced it will withdraw its troops from the province once the rebels hand in their weapons.

Despite the enormous progress made in Helsinki last week, Abdullah says he remains worried that the deal could fall through.

“We are worried. We have had a very bad experience with the Indonesian regime for so long. You’ve seen what happened … in 2003. We had all the mechanisms. Everything was in place, but (the peace efforts) were simply being sabotaged by the Indonesians,” he said, adding that the rebels were still waiting to see if the Indonesians “mean what they say and say what they mean”.

And while the GAM leaders in Sweden hope to return home soon they will wait “until all the mechanisms for peace are in place”.

“The initial stages are quite difficult. It’s a question of security because we have a big prize on our heads … It could be dangerous and might even spoil the whole process, since instead of focusing on the process they might focus on us,” Abdullah said, adding that GAM preferred that the people living in Aceh “run the show first”.

“But if we feel we are needed, we will go back, with or without the consent of the Indonesians,” he added.