Indonesian military refuses peace talks with separatists

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The Independent Online

Vital relief operations in Indonesia's devastated Aceh province were severely hampered yesterday, when authorities cited security concerns and threatened to expel foreign aid workers who failed to register their movements outside the capital, Banda Aceh. The government threats appeared to curtail hopes that the Boxing Day tsunami disaster would bring an end to a bloody 18-month campaign by the military against separatists in the province. The Free Aceh movement (GAM) declared a unilateral ceasefire in the wake of the catastrophe, a move swiftly echoed by Jakarta but which has not been formalised.

Vital relief operations in Indonesia's devastated Aceh province were severely hampered yesterday, when authorities cited security concerns and threatened to expel foreign aid workers who failed to register their movements outside the capital, Banda Aceh. The government threats appeared to curtail hopes that the Boxing Day tsunami disaster would bring an end to a bloody 18-month campaign by the military against separatists in the province. The Free Aceh movement (GAM) declared a unilateral ceasefire in the wake of the catastrophe, a move swiftly echoed by Jakarta but which has not been formalised.

More than 106,000 people - one-third of the overall deathtoll from the Indian Ocean quake - lost their lives in Aceh, and hundreds of thousands more have lost their homes and livelihoods.

US and Japanese troops have joined the international relief operation ferrying aid to remote parts of Aceh and the grisly clean-up continues, with aid agencies still struggling to reach outlying areas. But Jakarta has made clear it wants outside involvement in the area to end as soon as possible. Local NGOs have accused the military of trying to cover up evidence of widespread human rights abuses.

There is mounting concern in the Indonesian military that the international community could link the relief effort to a resolution of the decades-long conflict with GAM, which is demanding a separate homeland on the northern tip of Sumatra island. Similar international pressure resulted in a vote for independence in East Timor.

Budi Atmaji, Indonesia's chief of relief operations, said that parts of the province were not safe. The Indonesian military has reported sporadic shootings amid the huge relief operation, which it has blamed on separatist rebels, though it has provided no evidence to back those claims. No aid workers have been injured.

A spokesman for GAM, speaking by telephone from its headquarters in Sweden, reiterated its commitment to the ceasefire and offered talks with the government over co- operation in the relief operation. "We are completely focused on the aid effort and there should be no hindrance to relief workers doing their job," Bakhtiar Abdullah said. "We will not be carrying out [hostile] operations. In some areas our forces will help [distribute the aid]." The GAM spokesman added: "We have seen before that talks can bring some normalcy to the province. This could give peace a chance in Aceh."

The military appears to have ignored these assurances. Mr Atmaji said: "The government would be placed in a very difficult position if any foreigner who came to Aceh to assist in the aid effort was harmed through the acts of irresponsible parties. [That] would severely hamper the humanitarian effort, which remains the government's first priority and would distract officials from their focus on providing relief."

Clive Williams, an Australian National University defence expert, said the Indonesians wanted to keep close scrutiny of the foreigners to conceal military abuses and corruption, not because of rebel danger.

"The big problem with dealing with TNI [the Indonesian military] in Aceh is that they're involved in a lot of corruption there and the reason I think they don't want people to go to some areas is because they're involved in human rights abuses in those areas," Mr Williams said. "Having martial law then civil emergency has allowed them to get away with a lot."

In an October report, Amnesty International said Indonesian security forces bore "primary responsibility" for a "disturbing pattern of grave abuses, of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights". Human rights violations cited include murders, torture and rape. At least 10,000 have died in the violence.

The initial GAM rebellion in the mid-1970s in the oil- and gas-rich province was quickly crushed by the army but reignited in 1989. Since then, martial law was declared and the military has waged a brutal counterinsurgency that has killed at least 10,000 civilians. A ceasefire negotiated two years ago was short-lived, with both sides claiming violations of the terms.

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