Steps toward stability for fractious Indonesia?

Indonesia's efforts to calm its restive provinces took a step forward yesterday as parliament passed a bill to give its 27 provinces more autonomy. A wave of violence has racked the sprawling archipelago nation over the past year, as the country struggles with its worst economic and political crisis in three decades.

A separate autonomy package is being planned for the former Portuguese colony of East Timor, where violence between separatists and pro-integration forces left as many as 30 people dead on Saturday.

At the United Nations, foreign ministers from Indonesia and Portugal, East Timor's former colonial ruler, resumed talks this week to discuss details of the autonomy proposal ahead of a Timorese vote on the offer in July.

Indonesia invaded the half-island territory in 1975 and annexed it the following year. After 23 years of blunt refusal to consider independence, in January Indonesia offered to let the territory go if the East Timorese rejected autonomy.

EAST TIMOR'S warring factions hastily signed a peace pact yesterday, with Indonesia's military chief General Wiranto and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Carlos Belo in attendance. But disarmament was not part of the agreement.

Sporadic violence has continued to trouble other provinces throughout the country. In Aceh in the northwest, government troops opened fire on thousands of separatist protesters, killing at least two yesterday. In the eastern spece islands province of Maluku, at least four people died and 70 houses were torched in renewed Muslim-Christian clashes. Lawmakers urged the military to sweep an entire province on Borneo, in central Indonesia, for arms after ethnic clashes have killed more than 200 people since March. Indonesia's military has been accused of both not doing enough to stop conflicts throughout the country and instigating some of the violence.

Analysts say parliament's bill is an attempt to forestall from other regions the demands East Timor is pressing for.

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