Indonesia imposes armed escorts on foreign aid workers as bomb threats clear UK embassies

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The Independent Online

With hundreds of thousands of tsunami survivors in Aceh at risk from disease and famine, the Indonesian army yesterday ignored complaints of aid delays and announced plans to flood the province with troops.

With hundreds of thousands of tsunami survivors in Aceh at risk from disease and famine, the Indonesian army yesterday ignored complaints of aid delays and announced plans to flood the province with troops.

The army has also imposed armed escorts on foreign relief workers, whether they want them or not.

In the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, health experts warned that mosquito-breeding sites created by flooding would cause a malaria epidemic if authorities did not act quickly. More than 110,000 people have already died in the remote province on the northern tip of Sumatra, where separatist rebels have waged a low-level war for three decades. The government in Jakarta has so far ignored an offer of talks from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and increased its troop level to 50,000.

Aid organisations have warned the Indonesian authorities that imposing armed escorts was unnecessary and could cost precious time as they battle to save lives. The army has insisted rebels pose a threat to aid workers, but GAM announced a unilateral ceasefire in the wake of the disaster and there have been no reports of attacks.

"Foreign aid workers have nothing to fear from GAM; we are committed to the ceasefire," GAM's leader-in-exile, Malik Mahmud, said. "We guarantee safe passage. It is not in our interest to make war at present. We need to save the people."

Britain suspended services at its embassy in Indonesia and upgraded its travel warnings for the country after officials yesterday received bomb threats against the British and Thai embassies. Police stepped up security around the embassies, which are near one another.

The British Foreign Office said services at the embassy would remain suspended while officials monitor the security situation in Jakarta.

"Obviously the safety of staff and visitors is paramount," it said in a statement. "The closure will not have a detrimental effect on the relief operations in Aceh."

The Foreign Office warned that the threat of terrorism remained high in Indonesia. "Terrorists have shown in previous attacks, like the attack on the Australian Embassy and the Bali bombings, that they have the means and the motivation to carry out successful attacks," a statement said.

Indonesia's Major-General Syafrie Syasmuddin denied reports that soldiers were targeting rebels who had come out of hiding to help in the relief effort or find relatives. Asked if the new troops would be used in the battle against GAM, he replied: "No, no, no, of course not."

The army is accused of systematic abuse of civilians in the province in Human Rights Watch's annual report, launched yesterday. "The Indonesian security forces continue to engage in widespread extra-judicial execution, torture and disappearances," it said.

The increased military presence has raised the prospect that survivors will hide, fearing reprisals. Mr Mahmud said: "They are afraid of the army, after three decades of being victims."

The UN's humanitarian chief, Jan Egeland, said he was worried about restrictions on the movement of aid workers. His concerns were echoed by aid organisations, who said armed escorts were unhelpful. Many relief outlets in Aceh reported no security problems, and some said any escort could create bottlenecks and harm their reputation for independence.

"We discourage such actions because it blurs the distinction between humanitarian and military efforts," Eileen Burke, of Save the Children, said.

Indonesia wants foreign troops assisting in relief to leave no later than 26 March. But survivors among the tens of thousands living in refugee camps have welcomed the foreign troops, who have been flying helicopter aid missions to otherwise inaccessible areas.

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