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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January, 2005, 16:54 GMT
Top Jakarta team for Aceh talks
Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda talks with journalist during a news conference, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005.
The delegation includes Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda
The Indonesian government has said it is sending a top-level delegation to Finland for talks with the exiled leadership of Aceh's separatist rebels.

The delegation will include the foreign, justice, security and information ministers, the BBC has learned.

Talks between Jakarta and the Free Aceh Movement (Gam) broke down in May 2003.

But correspondents say the Asian tsunami appears to have brought the two sides back to the negotiating table.

The government raised its estimate of the number of people killed again on Tuesday to more than 220,000 people dead or missing, bringing the total killed throughout the region to 280,000.

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

A BBC correspondent in Jakarta, Tim Johnston, says the seniority of the delegation reflects the importance that Jakarta places on achieving some kind of permanent breakthrough in the long-running insurgency.

But some observers worry that a lack of a clear agenda might mean the talks lack direction, and that the government will have a tough time convincing hardliners in the army to come on board.

A Gam rebel spokesman in Aceh, Sofyan Dawood, was sceptical of the talks.

"This offer of peace does not come out of goodwill, rather it came out of the tsunami," he told Reuters news agency.

"We are still fighting for our mission. Independence is our final destination. But we welcome any means besides violence and armed contacts to solve this matter," he said.

In other developments:

  • Schools are reopening in Aceh on Wednesday
  • The US navy is surveying waters off Indonesia to determine how the tsunami altered the sea bed
  • Firefighters are battling a blaze fanning across 3km of Banda Aceh

The delegation is expected to leave Indonesia on Wednesday afternoon.

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

GAM says its is willing to talk without conditions, while the government says it is willing to consider anything short of independence.

Running sore

Gam has been waging a separatist rebellion in Aceh for nearly 30 years. When a 2002 peace deal collapsed the following year, the Indonesian military launched a full-scale military offensive.

In the wake of last month's huge tsunami, both sides agreed to an informal ceasefire to help aid distribution.

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.

Our correspondent says the legacy of distrust will be hard to overcome, but all sides agree that the disaster has changed the political as well as the geographical landscape of Aceh and that today there is a better chance of agreement than at any other time in the recent past.


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