Hundreds of Acehnese rebels walked free from Indonesian jails Wednesday under a sweeping amnesty that forms a vital plank of a landmark peace agreement signed in Helsinki this month.
Some 2,000 jailed members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) are expected to be released after President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued the amnesty late on Tuesday.
The peace deal was agreed after GAM gave up its demand for independence in tsunami-devastated Aceh Province, effectively ending three decades of fighting that has killed 12,000 people.
At least 58 prisoners, many flashing broad smiles, walked free from Jantho prison in Aceh. They were given money, food, shoes and Muslim prayer mats by a UN agency.
"I heard from a visiting relative on December 28 last year that my son died in the tsunami. I will be living with my mother for a while and start my own business," said Kardiman Rusli, who was serving a sentence of nearly three years.
"I hope the situation out there is really safe," he said, adding that his wife was working in neighboring Malaysia.
In the West Java city of Bandung, where 74 people were released from jail, one ex-GAM negotiator pledged that the group would abide by the August 15 peace agreement.
"I think what needs to be done firstly is to maintain the peace process. This is important for us," Teuku Kamaruzaman told reporters outside the prison.
"We respect (the truce) and the two sides are committed to implement the agreed points," said Kamaruzaman.
Hundreds of GAM members had been sent to jails on the main Indonesian island of Java. Officials in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, said prisoners there had also begun to be freed.
Kamaruzaman was a senior GAM negotiator who took part in talks that led to a ceasefire in late 2002. That deal collapsed in May 2003 when the government declared martial law in Aceh.
He was arrested soon after along with other negotiators. They were imprisoned for 12 to 15 years for treason.
The 74 GAM members freed in Bandung, southeast of Jakarta, were being transported on chartered buses to the capital and were scheduled fly to Aceh later Wednesday.
El Shinta radio station said 167 GAM supporters in the East Java city of Surabaya had also been released and were at the airport waiting to fly home.
The peace agreement was reached after a series of talks prompted by the giant earthquake and waves on December 26 that swept the Indian Ocean and hit Sumatra Island particularly hard, leaving 170,000 Acehnese dead or missing.
Some nationalist legislators in Jakarta, mostly from the opposition, have attacked the truce with GAM as being too soft on the rebels.
(China Daily September 1, 2005)