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Last Updated: Thursday, 13 January, 2005, 08:24 GMT
Aceh rebels urge ceasefire talks
US airmen load relief goods onto a Seahawk helicopter for distribution across Aceh province
Aid agencies have so far reported no security problems
Separatist rebels in the Indonesian province of Aceh have called on the government to join their ceasefire.

They say a temporary truce is needed to allow an effective humanitarian relief operation in the province, worst hit by the earthquake and tsunami.

A spokesman for the rebels said they wanted to do all they could to minimise the suffering of the Acehnese people.

The call comes a day after the government imposed travel restrictions on foreign aid workers in Aceh.

The authorities say the measures are necessary because the separatists have been shooting at aid workers and attempting to kidnap them, but the rebels have denied this.

Ceasefire

The rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gam) reaffirmed its commitment to the unilateral ceasefire it declared shortly after the earthquake struck on 26 December.

In a statement, the group said the truce is unconditional and will last for an indefinite period.

And for the first time, Gam has called on the government to reciprocate so as to allow the "unfettered humanitarian assistance to reach the people of Aceh".

ACEH: KEY FACTS
Province on the north-western tip of Sumatra
Higher percentage of Muslims than other parts of Indonesia
Gam rebels have fought decades-long separatist campaign
Year-long military crackdown beginning in May 2003 weakened Gam, but failed to capture senior members

The BBC's Rachel Harvey in Jakarta says it is a clever political move by the rebels, coming a day after the government imposed restrictions on the movement of foreign aid workers around Aceh.

The rebels appear to be saying that there need be no conflict, at least for the time being, as long as the government grasps this opportunity, our correspondent adds.

The government said on Wednesday that foreign aid workers and journalists in the ravaged province must now log their travel plans and will be given a military escort for journeys outside the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, and the devastated town of Meulaboh.

The government says the requirements are designed to protect foreigners against attacks by Gam guerrillas.

Some minor skirmishes have been reported and both sides have accused the other of using the tsunami as a pretext for a renewed offensive, but the claims have not been independently verified.

Correspondents do stress the pre-tsunami level of hostility has not resumed.

A UN spokesman said relief teams had not experienced any security incidents, and they were concerned the new regulations could create potential bottlenecks in aid deliveries.

Aid workers in the field have told the BBC that the measures appear to be more about monitoring movement than restricting access, but that it is too early to say how the guidelines will affect their work.

False dawns

The US has also said it wants clarification of news that Indonesia wants all foreign troops helping the relief effort to leave by the end of March.

Troops from the US, Singapore, Australia, and Japan are in Aceh. Military helicopters have enabled aid to reach remote communities on Aceh's west coast which were worst hit by the tsunami.

Volunteers carry a dead body out the debris in Banda Aceh, 13 January 2005
Bodies are still being pulled from the debris, weeks after the disaster

The army and Gam have accused each other of breaking the temporary ceasefire. The military has also said the rebels have been stealing aid, though aid agencies have not reported any problems.

Before 26 December, Aceh was under emergency rule and was closed both to aid agencies and the international media.

The Indonesian military has launched an offensive against the rebels, who are estimated to have lost more than 2,000 fighters over the past two years.

Even before the disaster, Indonesia's president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he would make finding a peaceful resolution to the problems in Aceh one of his government's priorities.

This could be a chance to open the door to negotiations, says our correspondent.

But there have been so many false dawns in the past, few will be overly optimistic now, she adds.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
How Indonesia could limit the aid effort



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