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Indonesia-Aceh Rebels Talks End Day Early Amid Skirmishes  - 2005-01-30

Indonesian officials and Aceh rebels have ended their first talks in 20 months with an agreement to meet again soon with mediators in Finland. Optimism about ending the 28-year conflict remains, despite the absence of an agreement on a formal cease-fire in the tsunami-devastated region. Meanwhile, clashes between the rebels and Indonesian military continue.

Deadly skirmishes between Indonesia's military and separatist rebels in Aceh Province punctuated peace talks in Helsinki.

The military says it killed four rebels on Saturday, just as former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari was hosting the talks between the Indonesian government and exiled leaders of Aceh's GAM rebel group.

The two days of talks ended early, but with an agreement to meet again.

GAM representative Malik Mahmood said: "We end our talk because there are some issue that we have to iron out again. We will arrange a next meeting in the near future."

There had been some expectations of reaching a formal cease-fire agreement that would shore up an informal truce declared after the December 26 tsunami that devastated Aceh.

The talks in Helsinki mostly concentrated on the immediate concern of getting aid to the hundreds of thousands of Acehnese displaced by the tsunami. Some 230,000 people have been killed in the province.

Neither side was willing to discuss the talks in detail, but Indonesia's minister of communications, Sofyan Djalil, who attended the meetings, says this first contact in 20 months is helpful.

"The government of Indonesia extends our willingness to solve the problem in Aceh. But since we don't talk to each other, you know, for quite some time, I think this meeting is profitable," Mr. Djalil says. "At least we talk, we see each other, and hear each other and this in terms of confidence building is quite good, very good."

Since taking office in September, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has shown a willingness to consider new, non-military, solutions. Earlier this month he formally offered a special autonomy deal to the rebels.

Mr. Ahtasaari says that offer is the basis of negotiations at the moment.

GAM has long rejected anything but outright independence.

The war in Aceh is one of Asia's longest-running conflicts. Some 13,000 people are estimated to have died since GAM took up arms in 1976 in the resource-rich province.