Indonesia orders aid groups out of Aceh

Jakarta has ordered foreign aid workers out of the troubled Aceh province saying it will take over all humanitarian assistance while it pursues rebel forces.

    Administering aid will be taken
    over by the central government
    that is also behind the offensive

    The warning comes as Indonesia's military announced plans to step up operations against the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). A thickly-forested island was seized from the rebels.     

     

    “Today Aceh island, which is a group of islands including Nasi island, has been completely taken over by the armed forces and efforts to find the rest of GAM members are continuing," said Colonel Geerhan Lentara, head of a local military command.     

     

    United Nations aid workers protested that they have not felt their security threatened by the offensive, but said they would abide by the order.

       

    "It didn't directly say a ban, but we have been firmly advised that it would be better for us to cease our functions in Aceh for security purposes," said Michael Elmquist, head of the UN's Office for Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

     

    Indonesia made the order known in a letter its chief social welfare minister, Yusuf Kalla, sent to OCHA.

     

    Suspect motives

     

    Aid groups have voiced fears 
    that the Indonesian government
    might target civilians

    But some human rights group officials say they are suspicious of Jakarta's motives, fearing abuses may take place if foreign aid workers are barred from the province.

       

    "This is not about the safety of NGO workers. Without the international NGOs the military will have more space to attack the people," said Munir, of the Indonesian rights NGO Kontras.

     

    Indonesia has military and police forces of more than 40,000 facing 5,000 GAM irregulars, and plans to step up its latest offensive against the rebels with more vehicle searches, document checks and patrols.

       

    "These are patrols for making contact, search and destroy... deliberate attacks, this is part of the intensification," Indonesia's main military spokesman, Major General Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, told reporters in the provincial capital Banda Aceh on Tuesday.

     

    The two sides have been fighting for 27 years in a simmering conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people, most of them civilians, in the oil- and gas-rich northeastern province.

       

    Counts of military, GAM and civilian casualties in the latest fighting vary widely, but an Indonesian Red Cross official said on Monday its workers had removed 82 bodies from conflict areas since the military offensive began.

       

    The latest fighting has created 23,000 temporary refugees and disrupted transportation of supplies and passengers within the remote province. But one international aid agency said there was no food crisis in the province, which had just finished a rice harvest.

       

    "Our staffers do not feel their safety is in jeopardy but it's the kind of situation where we need to base ourselves on what the government's advice is," Elmquist said.

       

    Foreign Ministry spokesman, Marty Natalegawa, earlier told Reuters local government and the Indonesian Red Cross would in the future be responsible for distributing all humanitarian assistance in Aceh.

     

    He said foreign aid workers "should be aware of this policy and leave Aceh. Their physical presence and direct contact in Aceh are not needed due to security concerns."


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