Why curbs on relief workers, US asks Indonesia: Aceh separatists call for ceasefire

Agence France Presse

Banda Aceh, January 13:

Rebels in Indonesia’s tsunami-hit Aceh today called for ceasefire talks to help the aid effort as new restrictions on foreign relief workers prompted the United States to demand “clarification” from Jakarta.

The move by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) came as political wrangling cast a shadow over humanitarian efforts in the area worst hit by the December 26 tsunamis, where more than 106,000 people died and thousands of bodies are still being recovered every day.

The rebels’ “prime minister in exile” Malik Mahmud said in a statement that his men were willing to sit down for discussions with Jakarta to ease fears over the safety of foreign humanitarian workers operating in Aceh. Indonesia has used the alleged threat of rebel violence to strengthen its military grip on Aceh, requiring all foreigners to register and seek military escort when travelling outside main towns.

Indonesian Vice President Yusuf Kalla has also said foreign troops should leave Aceh within three months — “in fact the sooner the better,” he said. The Indonesian miliary, meanwhile, announced that it would send thousands more soldiers into Aceh to help the tsunami relief efforts, bringing the total troop deployment there close to 50,000. Asked if the soldiers would be used in the military’s battle against the rebels, spokesman Major General Syafrie Syamsuddin said: “No, no, no, of course not.” The rebels have pledged that aid workers will be safe, and Mahmud said a unilateral ceasefire declared after the tsunamis still stands.

The armed forces of Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States have all rushed task forces to Aceh. In Washington, the US said it was demanding “clarification” of the new restrictions after the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln that serves as a key base for relief operations had to move outside Indonesian territorial waters because Indonesians objected to US training flights.

US marines delivering aid to survivors were also forced to scale back their presence on shore and move to ships to address Indonesian sensitivities and security concerns. “We are seeking further clarification about what that means,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.