Disaster May Spur Indonesia Peace Prospects

The massive earthquake and tsunami (search) that hit Aceh province has brought a temporary halt to fighting between rebels and government troops in the region, and could spur efforts to settle the decades-long conflict, analysts say.

The Free Aceh Movement (search) has ordered a cease-fire so that relief agencies can safely deliver supplies to the province, where the government estimates 25,000 may have been killed in Sunday's disaster, though the official toll is one-fifth that.

Military and police say they are concentrating on helping the survivors, not hunting down rebels. The government has eased regulations imposed during the conflict preventing foreign journalists and relief workers from traveling to the province.

"We're holding back," Lt. Col. Ali Tarunajaya, a police chief in the insurgent stronghold of north Aceh. "We're not going to arrest the rebels. They're looking for members of their families, just like many of our police members are looking for theirs. We're all crying together."

Sunday's quake — the most powerful in the last 40 years — struck off Aceh's west coast, sending tsunamis crashing onto its shores and coastlines in Asia and Africa, killing more than 26,000 people in 11 countries.

Relief officials said they did not expect the conflict — which has killed 13,000 people since 1976 including at least 2,000 in the last year — to affect rescue efforts.

"The indication is that there shouldn't be a problem," said Michael Elmquist, who heads the United Nation's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jakarta. "We've been told that the vice president has instructed the air force to facilitate the arrival of foreign assistance upon arrival."

Analysts said the military could use the disaster to win the hearts and minds of the province's 4.3 million people by joining in with rebuilding efforts.

It has also highlighted the marginal role the rebels, thought to number about 5,000 poorly armed fighters, play in the province, despite their claims that they run an alternative administration.

"It sounds awful, but this disaster is going to give the Indonesian army a good reputation. Since the disaster, all you read about is army, army, army," said Dede Oetomo, a peace activist who has campaigned in Aceh.

"I'm actually thinking that the army is using this disaster to win over the hearts and minds of the Aceh people by showing themselves as necessary, that they are the good guys."

Ken Conboy, an Aceh specialist, said the disaster also could provide opportunities for the rebels, known by their Indonesian acronym GAM, and the government to show more flexibility in attaining peace.

"GAM has taken some very serious losses over the past year, and they may be looking for a reprieve," Conboy said. "This also might provide an opportunity for the government to rethink their Aceh policy and come up with something that is a bit more cerebral, rather than continuing the policy of a civil emergency without any game plan."