Aceh on the brink of war as peace talks evolve in Tokyo

Under the threat of war, rebel leaders squared off with Indonesian officials Sunday in Tokyo in last-ditch talks aimed at saving a fragile peace deal.

At stake is a plan that could end decades of separatist violence in the resource-rich province of Aceh.

The two sides sat down for the second round of negotiations as thousands of Indonesian troops massed in the province, poised to attack rebel forces.

After the first session Saturday, the Indonesian government said it would likely order a military offensive if the two-day talks ended in failure.

Delegates entered negotiations Sunday without talking to reporters.

They initially met face-to-face in the same room to exchange positions and later broke into separate groups to weigh their options, Indonesian Embassy official Sakidin said. Asked if a settlement could be reached before the government’s Sunday ultimatum expired, Sakidin said: “It’s difficult to guess.”

Yutaka Iimura, Japanese ambassador to Indonesia and cochair of the talks, opened the Sunday session, saying, “The peace process in Aceh is at a critical juncture.

“We strongly, honestly hope that this meeting will be fruitful,” he added.

But on Sunday, government troops were preparing for war. Armored vehicles rumbled through the provincial capital Banda Aceh, while soldiers took up positions at key junctions and corners in the city.

“These are the final minutes,” said Aceh military spokesman Lt. Col. Firdaus Komarno.

“We are waiting for instructions from Jakarta.”

After Saturday’s meeting, Indonesia’s security chief Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono told reporters in Jakarta it was “almost certain” President Megawati Sukarnoputri would order a military strike if the talks ended in failure.

The two-day peace conference in Tokyo was arranged hastily under pressure by international donors alarmed by the prospect of a return to hostilities in Aceh. More than 12,000 people have been killed in fighting there since 1976.

The agreement halted a 26-year insurgency in the oil- and gas-rich province located 1,770 km northwest of Jakarta. But things have unraveled in recent months following violence by both sides and mutual recriminations.

The Indonesian government accuses the rebels of using the lull in the fighting to stockpile weapons and recruit fighters. It insists that the rebels renounce any long-term aspirations for independence and begin disarming immediately, or else face war.

The rebels, for their part, refuse to put down their weapons until the army withdraws to defensive positions.

In a sign of the obstacles facing delegates in Tokyo, a rebel representative in Banda Aceh said Sunday that government demands for disarmament were “unrealistic.”

“(Our group) has no problem handing over its weapons, but this must occur at the same time as the demilitarization of Aceh,” said Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba.