A separatist leader returned Monday to Indonesia's Aceh province for the first time in 25 years, another sign the peace process aimed at ending one of the world's most intractable conflicts is on track. Bakhtiar Abdullah was the first member of the Free Aceh Movement's exiled leadership to come back to the tsunami-ravaged province since the Aug. 15 signing of a peace accord. The others have so far refused, citing security concerns.
"I'm at a loss for words," Abdullah, the rebels' spokesman and a key aide to top leader Hasan di Tiro, told reporters as he stepped off the plane.
"I wanted to see everything for myself."
The province is slowly recovering from the Dec. 26 tsunami that claimed a staggering 131,000 lives and left another half million people homeless, according to the AP.
Ironically, the killer waves helped speed efforts to end the three-decade civil war, with both the rebels and the government saying they did not want to add to people's suffering.
Abdullah said one of his goals was to help oversee implementation of the peace agreement that will grant wide-ranging autonomy to the province of 4 million people on the northern tip of Sumatra island.
The accord, which is being supervised by 250 monitors from the European Union and Southeast Asian countries, calls for the disarmament of the rebels and the withdrawal of part of the Indonesian garrison.
So far separatists have handed over more than 400 of their self-declared 840 weapons and the military has pulled 12,000 troops from the province, half of those slated to leave by the year's end.
Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic who serves as an adviser to the rebels' exiled government, said Abudullah's return from Sweden was another sign the agreement to end the fighting was going well.
"It may even have passed the point of no return," he said.
The accord also calls for the gradual reintegration of the separatists, previously banned under Indonesia's draconian internal security laws, into political life.
Although the disengagement process has gone off relatively smoothly, the level of mistrust remains high following 29 years of fighting that has claimed 15,000 lives.
Two years ago, a similar truce collapsed when the Indonesian army kicked out foreign observers, arrested rebel negotiators and mounted an offensive in which more than 3,000 people died.
Abdullah said he received a 60-day visa to come to Indonesia.