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Tenuous peace deal in Indonesia

Jakarta and Aceh rebels plan to sign a historic agreement, but key issues remain unresolved.

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Monday's scheduled peace deal between Indonesia and representatives of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) is being touted as the beginning of the end for Asia's oldest conflict.

Yet in the midst of such high hopes, a GAM official said a rebel leader was kidnapped and assassinated by an Indonesian military unit last week, and some commanders have threatened to pull out of the talks. It's a measure of the type of problems likely to persist even after the agreement is signed.

The deal itself - drafted in Geneva - is filled with ambiguities on disarmament and demilitarized zones and holds no political proposals beyond the status quo in Aceh, the resource-rich province at the northern tip of Sumatra. Neither Indonesia nor the rebels have compromised on the core issue of independence, and hard-liners on both sides remain poised to undermine the deal if their personal fiefdoms are threatened.

"We hope this is a major breakthrough, but this has been a long conflict, and peace will probably be a long process,'' says Imam Sudja, the head of Aceh's Council of Religious Scholars and a key peace activist. "We have to guard against euphoria."

Essentially, analysts say, diplomatic pressure combined with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri's expectations are leading to the dressing up of a preliminary agreement as an ultimate solution.

Ms. Megawati, aides say, has set a target for the conflict to be "solved" by the end of this year. Meanwhile, the October terrorist attack in Bali has added new urgency to US interests in Aceh. Foreign donors, led by the US, have begun to shift their funding plans for Aceh away from conflict resolution to reconstruction and development. The US and Japan hosted a meeting in Aceh early last week to craft an aid strategy to support the agreement.

There are reasons to be hopeful. The document on the table calls for the cessation of hostilities, the introduction of unarmed foreign military observers to enforce the cease-fire, and the creation of joint committees to negotiate demilitarization.

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