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Thursday, November 4, 1999 Published at 10:05 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Indonesia troops to leave Aceh

A referendum on autonomy is thought to be unlikely

By Jonathan Head in Jakarta

A spokesman for the Indonesian armed forces has said a withdrawal of troops from the province of Aceh will begin this month, following a demand from president Abdurrahman Wahid earlier this week for forces in Aceh to be reduced.

Fragile Archipelago
The military says it will pull out what it calls non-organic forces, referring to the special units of anti-riot police and combat troops which were sent into Aceh this year to deal with the armed separatist movement there.

President Wahid has promised to take a personal role in trying to resolve the conflict in Aceh, which is thought to have cost the lives of more than 2,000 people over the past decade.

'New approach'

The Indonesian military has reacted quickly to President Wahid's demand for a new approach to Aceh.

The BBC's Jonathan Head: "Thousands of people have been forced from their homes"
That deployment of the anti-riot force has, by any standards, been a failure.

Around 200 civilians have been killed, many in what local people have described as unprovoked massacres.

Dozens of troops have died in ambushes and around 150,000 people have fled their homes.

Investigation of abuses

The military plans to leave less controversial local army units in the province. But human rights campaigners in Aceh say a troop pull-out alone is not enough.

[ image: Burning the Indonesian flag - the separatist movement is increasingly assertive]
Burning the Indonesian flag - the separatist movement is increasingly assertive
They want all the abuses of the past to be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.

Until now, the military has put only a handful of human rights violators within its ranks on trial and the punishments have been very light.

Ahmad Humam Hamid: "The withdrawal of troops is only one issue"
Even more important, say Acehnese campaigners, is a dialogue between the government and the Free Aceh movement on the future status of the province.

President Wahid has already made contact with some of the separatists, but the movement is very fragmented and it's not known who the most influential leaders are.

Nor is it clear what the central government can offer as a concession; independence for this wealthy province has already been ruled out and, after the disastrous events in East Timor this year, Jakarta is hardly likely to risk allowing a referendum on Aceh's status, which is what many Acehnese are demanding.

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