Malik Mahmud, a leader of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the region's self-styled prime minister, on Friday said the international focus on Aceh - the area worst hit by the flood waves triggered by Sunday's earthquake - might benefit the rebels.

Mahmud, who lives in exile in Sweden, said Jakarta had tried to prevent the outside world from knowing about Aceh's independence struggle. "But now people abroad know where is Aceh, what is Aceh."

Window of opportunity

"While we talk about the natural disaster in Aceh, human tragedies, things like that, we also talk about the political aspects of Aceh and the problem that we have with the Indonesian  government. This is an opportunity," he said.

Before the tsunami struck,
Aceh was caught up in 
fighting

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan had earlier hoped the disaster would bring something good since the protagonists were now working together to help those in need.

"And I hope that collaboration is not going to end with the crisis and that they will be able to build on that and use these new dynamics to resolve their own differences and we will be encouraging that," he said.

Renewed hope

Mahmud said although GAM was still waiting for a reply from Jakarta to its unilateral ceasefire offer extended on 27 December in the interest of undivided attention on rescue work, he remained hopeful that peace stood a chance.

"We will survive, and especially with the help of the international community. Whatever aid or attention we get from the international community will help Aceh to survive," he said.

Seeking independence for the region in the northern tip of the Sumatra islands, GAM rebels have been battling Indonesian forces for more than two decades.

Thousands have died since the Indonesian government launched a renewed offensive against the rebels in May 2003.