BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (Reuters) – Indonesia will begin withdrawing thousands of troops from strife-torn Aceh province as soon as rebels there complete the first stage of an arms surrender this weekend, the military said on Friday.
In the past two days, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has handed in around 180 manufactured and homemade firearms in the first phase of a four-part process under an August 15 agreement with the government that ended three decades of fighting.
The rebels have to surrender a total of 210 weapons, or 25 percent of the total number of guns that they had declared, by the end of the first phase on Saturday.
Jakarta in return will withdraw troop and police reinforcements roughly simultaneously over the four stages of decommissioning, eventually cutting security forces in Aceh by half.
Fighting between GAM and government forces began in 1976 and killed around 15,000 people. In May 2003, a previous truce collapsed over differences in interpretation of the pact.
The rebels and the government were pushed back to the negotiating table after a massive earthquake and tsunami on December 26 left 170,000 people dead or missing in the province on the northern tip of Sumatra island.
A military spokesman in the Aceh operations command said around 6,000 troops would leave the province in the first phase of withdrawal due to start on Sunday.
"On September 18, the troops will be withdrawn from their posts because we want to see the decommissioning process first," said Lieutenant Colonel Erie Soetiko.
However, he said soldiers might need to camp out around ports for some time before navy vessels came to get them.
"As soon as the ships come, we go home. If AMM wants to make sure of this, they can set up tents at the ports," he said, referring to the European-led Aceh Monitoring Mission.
Indonesian officials stressed that the troop pull-out will take place in step with the pace of the rebel decommissioning.
"If the number of weapons handed in doesn”t reach 25 percent, let”s say only 20 percent, then the number of troop (reinforcements) that will be withdrawn will also be the same, 20 percent," Information Minister Sofyan Djalil said on Thursday.
"If it”s 26 percent, then the number of troops withdrawn will be the same, 26 percent."
There are already signs that the two sides are interpreting the pact differently.
After the initial surrender, the Indonesian military insisted that only usable manufactured weapons counted toward the total agreed rebel armory of 840 weapons to be handed in. The rebels say home-made arms are included in the agreement.
The truce document, however, makes no distinction between manufactured or home-made weapons.
"It is true that some GAM weapons are home-made or old or are not used anymore. These issues will be discussed later, but we need to realize … there is a good commitment to bring peace to Aceh without weapons," senior GAM representative Amni Marzuki told Jakarta-based Radio El Shinta.
European and Asian members of the Aceh Monitoring Mission will make a statement on the issue later on Friday.
While the first arms surrender on Thursday took place on a field in a downtown area of the provincial capital Banda Aceh, Friday”s disarmament took place at a GAM stronghold in a rural hamlet. Over 100 firearms were surrendered, according to GAM officials quoted by local media.
The foreign monitors have not announced a figure for weapons handed in so far, but the military and former rebels on Thursday said around 80 weapons had been decommissioned.
Darwis Jeunieb, a legendary district rebel commander who Jakarta has sought for years, resurfaced as the host of Friday”s event and warmly greeted Major General Bambang Darmono, the Indonesian general who led the 2003 offensive against the rebels.
The peace accord also includes the withdrawal of thousands of police in Aceh. Indonesia should only have 9,100 policemen in the province of four million people by Dec 31.
Some 1,300 police left Aceh on Wednesday and officials said 4,000 more would be sent home.