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Head of Aceh peace mission predicts smooth transition

Associated Press - November 10, 2006

Foster Klug, Washington – The head of the European Union-led peace monitoring mission in Indonesia's devastated Aceh province predicted on Thursday a smooth transition when the Europeans leave next month as former rebels rejoin society, participate in elections and negotiate directly with their former enemies in government.

Pieter Feith said both sides still could contact top EU officials to arbitrate any emergencies after the mission ends Dec. 15, but for the most part the success of enforcing last year's peace agreement would be up to the government in Jakarta and to the rebels, who fought a 29-year war that claimed 15,000 lives.

"The parties need to assume responsibility and ownership" of the peace process, Feith told an audience gathered at Johns Hopkins University's school of international studies. "It's important that a large, proud country like Indonesia" not be seen as having to rely on foreigners to solve its problems, he said.

The Europeans leave just after the Acehnese stage a Dec. 11 vote for governor and other local positions. The government is allowing former fighters to field candidates in the elections, which has been illegal in the past.

Indonesia's ambassador to the United States, Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat, told reporters Thursday that the elections are a source of pride for his country, after so many years of death and war. He said they will be a "showcase of how the Aceh peace settlement has borne fruit."

An EU mission, separate from the peace mission, will observe the elections, which Feith predicted would be calm. Still, more police will be brought in to prevent violence, he said.

Feith praised Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former army general and the country's first directly elected leader, for his willingness to seek a peace agreement with the rebels, where other leaders had pushed for crushing the guerrillas militarily.

It appeared, the Dutch head of the EU mission said, that Jakarta had learned from its disastrous handling of the crisis in East Timor. That former Portuguese colony descended into violence in 1999, when East Timor broke from 24 years of brutal Indonesian rule, and revenge-seeking militia rampages left nearly 1,500 people dead.

"A refreshing new openness has emerged" in Indonesia, Feith said, which bodes well for Indonesia to improve its international reputation.

Under terms of a peace agreement signed on Aug. 15, 2005, the army pulled more than 20,000 troops from Aceh, and the province was given control over 70 percent of its natural resources.

Feith said rebels were encouraged to publicly hand over their weapons, which were destroyed immediately. Simultaneously, thousands of Indonesian troops left Aceh in stages, giving both sides important psychological reassurances that peace was becoming a reality, Feith said, and encouraging rebels to rejoin society.