The sound of gunfire rang out in the cool air of the city of Banda Aceh last Sunday, shattering the predawn peace. It was a stark reminder to hundreds of aid workers in the rubble-strewn city that they are working in a conflict zone.
The police were quick to blame the province's separatists, the Free Aceh Movement, known by the acronym GAM. It later turned out that a disturbed Indonesian soldier had fired the shots while wandering close to the UN headquarters.
The incident illustrates the distrust in Aceh between the military and the separatists, and what could complicate international relief efforts as they get under way in the province worst-hit by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami. While there haven't been reports of significant aid disruptions yet, relief workers are concerned about future travel restrictions, security costs, disrupted supply lines, and the punitive withholding of aid.
"You have to proceed with due caution. This has been and is a zone of conflict," said Aly-Kahn Rajami, program manager of CARE International.
Reports of sporadic clashes between the government and rebels have emerged from several parts of Aceh province in recent days, signaling an end to an unofficial cease-fire. The fighting and subsequent finger pointing have dampened - though not dashed - hopes among analysts that the international relief effort could assuage the 28-year-old conflict.
On Saturday, the Indonesian government blamed several attacks on humanitarian supply lines and called the actions "a means to attract international attention, and collect supplies for their own needs."
Representatives of Aceh's separatist government in exile in Sweden denied any GAM commanders had violated a cease-fire declared in the days after the tsunami. "It is propaganda by the Indonesian military to tarnish our name," says Malik Mahmud, prime minister of GAM's government.
"We don't know who started these incidents," says Salim Said, a military historian in Jakarta, "but I don't see any alternative but more conflict." Both GAM and the Indonesian military have a history of blaming each other for skirmishes.
A civil emergency, extended in November last year, remains in place in Aceh. The commander of Indonesia's armed forces told AP that his soldiers on Sumatra island were only engaged in the relief effort. But military sources in Jakarta say that many military units, especially in rebel areas, are still combat ready.
GAM representatives say that although the tsunami has killed many of their families and supporters along coastal areas, the armed wing of their movement was largely unscathed by the earthquake and tsunami, and remained active in the mountains of the province. The fighting has involved coastal communities that get plundered by the separatists for money and blamed by the government for supporting the insurgency.
Teungku Jamaika, a military spokesman for the GAM, says that 1,777 soldiers in five prisons along coastal areas were missing, presumed dead. He refused to disclose GAM's current strength. Indonesia says there are an estimated 2,500 GAM soldiers active in the hills. "We will continue the struggle until our goal is achieved, and that is independence," says Bakhtiar Abdullah, a Swedish-based spokesman for the rebels.
Aceh, on Indonesia's westernmost tip, has a long history of resisting outside control, especially from Jakarta, going back to the 19th century, when the Dutch tried to subdue the resource-rich province by force.
President Suharto declared a military operation in Aceh in 1989 to wipe out the separatists. The military occupation , which extended until 1998, left a legacy of brutality, human rights abuses, and corruption. Many officers have also found Aceh to be a lucrative post, including illegal logging and protection of the country's largest marijuana fields, according to International Crisis Group reports.
Efforts to broker a peace between the Indonesian government and the separatists have repeatedly failed. Indonesia launched a fresh military offensive in May 2003. Since the conflict began in December 1976, an estimated 15,000 civilians have died and 100,000 lost their homes.
"This conflict cannot be solve through military means," says Kusnanto Anggoro, a political scientist at Jakarta's Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's very hard to win a guerrilla war."
To solve the conflict, says Rizal Sukma, an Acehnese lecturer in peace and war studies in Jakarta, says a neutral third party, such as Japan, is needed to broker talks between the government and rebels.Mr.Sukma says the presence of Australians, Americans, and other foreigners could help "to create a climate of international trust in which a dialogue can take place."
A peaceful resolution would likely take the form of autonomy for the province, and would require the side-lining of those on the extremes: the separatist fighters and military commanders bent on wiping them out.
The skirmishes add another hurdle to aid organizations. Arturo Pasigan, a technical officer with the World Health Organization, says that conflicts can restrict critical movements of aid convoys. On top of heightened security risks, fighting can add red tape when governments declare some zones high risk and require travel permits.
• Wire material was used in this report.