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Last Updated: Monday, 24 January, 2005, 11:40 GMT
Aceh talks to begin 'within days'
An Acehnese rebel fighter, Monday 17 Jan
Gam and the army have both pledged to observe a ceasefire
A spokesman for Aceh's separatist rebels has confirmed that the group will soon hold talks with the Indonesian government.

Bakhtiar Abdullah, a spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) in exile, said a meeting would take place in Finland by the end of this week.

Gam has been waging a separatist rebellion in Aceh for nearly 30 years.

But in the wake of last month's huge tsunami, both sides agreed to a ceasefire to help aid distribution.

About 160,000 people were killed and some 800,000 made homeless in Aceh and North Sumatra as a result of the tsunami disaster.

"Our main concern right now is the relief operation in Aceh," Mr Abdullah told the BBC News website.

"We are committed to a ceasefire to help the aid effort," he said.

"It seems that the government is responding to this gesture by agreeing to the talks. This is most welcoming," he said.

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
Internationally-brokered peace deal brokered in Dec 02 but collapsed in May 03
Year-long military crackdown weakened Gam, but failed to capture senior members

The talks are being mediated by the Crisis Management Initiative (CMI), headed by Finnish ex-President Martti Ahtisaari.

CMI said in a statement on Sunday that representatives from the two sides would meet in Helsinki, but gave no further details "because of the sensitivity of the meeting, and in order to create a conducive atmosphere".

In the wake of the tsunami, both the government and Gam agreed to an informal ceasefire to allow aid into the affected regions.

But sporadic fighting continued, and last Thursday, the head of the Indonesian army said his troops had killed 120 separatist rebels in the previous two weeks - though Gam dismissed the claim as propaganda.

Japanese troops arrive

The US and other foreign militaries are beginning to reduce their presence in tsunami-hit Aceh, handing over much of their aid work to civilian organisations.

In contrast, Japan's largest military deployment since World War II arrived in the Indonesian province on Monday.

Three Japanese navy ships carrying 950 Self-Defence Force personnel are now stationed near the provincial capital Banda Aceh.

Countering criticism that the troops had arrived too late, a spokeswoman for the Japanese embassy told AFP: "We still see a need for the deployment of the mission, especially for work in areas such as sanitation and preventing diseases."

One foreigner not welcomed into Aceh in recent days was American journalist William Nessen, who was detained in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province, on Sunday.

Mr Nessen was imprisoned in Aceh in 2003 for immigration violations, and on his release was banned from travelling to Indonesia.

Mr Nessen insists that this time he entered the country legally, but according to Reuters news agency the Indonesian authorities have decided to deport him.


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