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Rebels May Bolt Indonesia Peace Talks

May 16, 2003

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (AP) _ A chief Acehnese rebel negotiator threatened Friday to pull out of weekend peace talks with the Indonesian government aimed at salvaging a fragile peace accord in the province, after five rebel delegates were arrested.

However, Zaini Abdullah and four other rebels later traveled to Tokyo, where Saturday’s talks were scheduled, and Jakarta downplayed the threat.

``The rebels always threaten to boycott,″ Maj. Gen. Sudi Silalahi, a senior official from the security ministry, told el-Shinta radio station. ``That’s their habit.″

The talks aim to save a faltering Dec. 9 peace deal in the oil-and gas-rich province of Aceh that was hailed as a landmark attempt to end a 26-year insurgency which has left 12,000 people dead.

The arrests came just hours after President Bush congratulated Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri ``on going the extra mile in pursuit of peace″ by agreeing to the talks in Japan.

``The United States strongly supports efforts to pursue a negotiated peace in Aceh within the framework of a unified Indonesia,″ Bush said in a statement.

The rebel negotiators were arrested as they tried to leave their hotel in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and travel to the airport. Police said the men were detained because they had not reported to officers before leaving the province _ something they are required to do under the peace deal.

Three of the men were also under house arrest after police said last week they were considering charging them in connection with a series of recent bombings in Indonesia.

``These arrests are wrong,″ chief negotiator Zaini Abdullah told The Associated Press from Sweden, where several rebel leaders live in exile. ``We will not negotiate unless the men are released.″

However, it remained unclear whether the rebels would carry out their threat. Later, Abdullah and four other negotiators left for Tokyo _ a sign that the discussions could still take place.

Another rebel delegate, interviewed by phone before he left Sweden for Japan, said he was optimistic the talks would go ahead despite the arrests.

``When we decided to attend this meeting as always we have some kind of optimism,″ said Baktiar Abdullah. ``The final result will only be determined after we sit down and talk and see the environment and situation there.″

An official at Indonesia’s security ministry, who declined to be identified, said the head of the Indonesian delegation was already in Tokyo and predicted the talks would take place.

Aceh police spokesman Col. Sayed Husaini said the five rebels were being questioned and would not be released until later Friday or Saturday morning.

``It’s impossible that they can go to Tokyo now,″ he said

Still, the Henry Dunant Center, the Geneva-based conflict resolution group that brokered the deal, said it was trying to secure the release of the men so they could travel to Japan. The group also noted that the rebel delegation could leave Saturday and still make the talks.

At first the accord stemmed the violence that has wracked the province 1,200 miles northwest of Jakarta, but in recent months it has been repeatedly violated by both sides.

The government insists the rebels must drop their demands for independence, lay down their weapons and accept special autonomy or face a military crackdown. The military has around 30,000 troops in the region against a poorly equipped rebel army estimated to number 3,000 to 5,000.

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