South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

Military restricts Aceh aid

10 January 2005

Indonesia has banned foreign soldiers and aid workers from most of tsunami-devastated Aceh province, claiming the security risks are too great to allow free movement without specific military approval.

The restrictions are an early sign of the tension in the Government and the military caused by the sudden influx of thousands of foreigners in what has long been one of Indonesia's most closely guarded areas, torn by decades of separatist struggle.

The bans were imposed at the weekend despite recent government assurances that foreign troops and aid workers would be unhindered in their relief operations, and threaten to sour the unprecedented spirit of co-operation between Indonesia and Australia following the tsunamis that flattened the region on Boxing Day.

Tensions were also emerging in Sri Lanka where UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the Government to use the support it was receiving from around the world to heal the country's ethnic divisions and end a civil war with Tamil rebels. His words came after he reluctantly agreed to a government request not to visit tsunami-stricken areas under rebel control, a move that prompted protests by hundreds of people in Tamil-majority Jaffna.

The move by the Indonesian Government to restrict access came as gunfire erupted in the regional capital of Banda Aceh early yesterday and follows several reports of government clashes with suspected Aceh separatists, including a report that soldiers on Friday shot dead seven people in Lamlhom, a village about 40 kilometres from Banda Aceh.

With tensions mounting across Aceh, Indonesia Vice-President Jusuf Kalla in Jakarta told a televised meeting of top government officials working on the crisis that foreigners were being restricted to Banda Aceh and the capital of the West Aceh region, Meulaboh.

This was despite assurances last Thursday by the Government's co-ordinating minister for social welfare, Alwi Shihab, who told The Age that no restrictions would apply. "Foreigners are free to go anywhere where aid is required," he said.

But the head of Mr Kalla's National Disaster Co-ordination Board, Budi Adiputo, said that was wrong. Aid organisations and defence force personnel had been told that specific permission was needed from Indonesia's military commander in Aceh, General Endang Suwarya, to go anywhere in Aceh apart from Banda Aceh and Meulaboh.

"Only Banda Aceh and Meulaboh are fully controlled by the TNI (army), so that's why we allow foreigners to those two cities ... The policy is foreigners only in Banda Aceh and Meulaboh," he said.

General Suwarya also confirmed the ban, adding that if a US helicopter wanted to take relief stores to Aceh's second biggest town of Lhokseumawe, it would need his permission.

Mr Aditputo said the Government had imposed the restrictions to avoid adverse reaction to the death of a foreigner caught up in a clash with separatists.

"My position is that now there are thousands and thousands of people, not only nationals but internationals who have come here to support us," he said. "If something happens and, say, one foreigner with white skin is killed, how will the international community react?"

The restrictions now on foreigners using the road to Lhokseumawe and towns on the way are even tighter than the rules that applied after martial law was declared in May 2003. For much of that time foreigners were free to travel to Lhokseumawe provided they reported to the military posts in towns they visited.

In other developments:

Prime Minister John Howard said Australian troops and aid workers would remain in Indonesia and other tsunami-hit areas as long as they were needed. He told the nation in a televised address last night. "A tragedy of this magnitude . . . requires a long-term commitment of resources if shattered communities are to be rebuilt and survivors provided with some hope for the future."

The death toll from the disaster was at least 156,000. But aid groups and Indonesian officials now fear the toll in Aceh alone could climb as high as 300,000, with surveillance flights over the west coast of Sumatra failing to sight large numbers of survivors among the shattered villages.

The toll of Australian lives lost stood at 22 last night, with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade revising down to 31, from 40, the number of Australians for whom it holds grave concerns. A further 231 Australians remain unaccounted for in tsunami-affected areas, down from 303.

Tales of miraculous survival continued to emerge, with an elderly Sri Lankan man found alive under the debris of a southern town nearly two weeks after it was decimated by the giant waves.

Rich nations pledged to suspend debt repayments by tsunami-hit nations. World Bank president James Wolfensohn, visiting Sri Lanka, said the bank would also consider debt relief and could hand out up to $US1.5 billion ($A2 billion) in aid.

International cricketers arrived in Melbourne for today's fund-raising one-day international at the MCG, adding to local efforts that included pledges of more than $20 million from Saturday night's telethon and concert broadcast on commercial television networks.

Matthew Moore and Farah Farouque

Information on Aceh   |   Peace Movement Aotearoa