BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Indonesia's Aceh rebels disbanded their armed wing today in a major step toward ending one of Asia's longest separatist conflicts.
Peace efforts gained momentum after Aceh province was devastated by the massive earthquake and tsunami on Dec. 26, 2004, killing more than 131,000 people in the province and leaving half a million others homeless.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono yesterday had honored the survivors working to rebuild their lives.
''You have reminded us that life is worth struggling for," he said.
The announcement by the rebels came shortly after their representatives met with Yudhoyono in Banda Aceh, the capital of Aceh province.
''The Acehnese national army, or the armed wing of the Free Aceh Movement, has demobilized and disbanded," Sofyan Daud, a former rebel commander, told reporters. ''The Aceh national army is now part of civil society and will work to make the peace deal a success."
Since the signing of a peace agreement in August, the former fighters have handed in all of their self-declared 840 arms and the Indonesian military has withdrawn nearly 20,000 troops from Aceh -- with hundreds more scheduled to leave before the month's end.
With the sensitive phase of disarmament and decommissioning near completion, the government will start preparing laws giving the rebels the right to form a political party and cementing the region's right to greater autonomy and control of its natural resources.
The rebels took up arms in 1976 to carve out an independent homeland in the oil- and gas-rich province.
Nearly 15,000 people died, many of them civilians caught up in army sweeps through remote villages.