Indonesia tightens access to Aceh

Aid groups are protesting registration demands. The USS Lincoln left Indonesian waters on Wednesday.

The devastation wreaked on Aceh's coast by the Dec. 26 tsunami was so great that Indonesia's fears of foreign intervention in the war-torn province were briefly swept away. [Editor's note: The original version had an incorrect dateline.]

Aceh, which lost nearly 104,000 people, was reopened to foreign aid workers, and even the US Marines were invited to help by a nation that hosted huge demonstrations over the invasion of Afghanistan. [Editor's note: The original version gave an incorrect death toll.]

But on Tuesday, Indonesia announced that all foreign aid workers in the province will have to register with the military or be expelled, and said they must travel with armed soldiers in areas deemed to be insurgent hotbeds.

Indonesia also said the Australian, US, and other foreign soldiers who were among the first to bring aid to victims here will have to leave Indonesia by the end of March - or sooner if possible. Troops from at least nine countries are currently helping to distribute aid.

In the past, Indonesia kept foreigners out of Aceh for fear their presence could encourage the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, and that the information that they might provide on Aceh could build international support for the separatist movement. Restrictions delayed the arrival of foreign aid groups to the province for about three days after the earthquake and destructive waves.

Many members of the Indonesian military and political establishment also blame foreigners - particularly Australia and the US - for the 1999 referendum that led to independence for the tiny former province of East Timor and have vowed that Indonesia will never allow itself to lose territory again.

Indonesian officials said the new restrictions are only designed to protect aid workers from rebels.

"[T]he government would be placed in a very difficult position if a foreigner who came to Aceh to assist in the aid effort was harmed through the acts of irresponsible parties," the government said in a statement.

But there have been no reports of attacks on relief convoys by any of the agencies working in the province. The UN and some aid groups have complained that being forced to travel with Indonesian soldiers will complicate the delivery of aid and politicize their work.

"We discourage such actions because it blurs the distinction between humanitarian and military efforts here," Eileen Burke of Save the Children said.

Major aid groups have previously refused to work in Aceh rather than accept such restrictions.

Like many former colonies (Indonesia was held by the Dutch until World War II), the country, the world's most populous Muslim nation, is also fiercely nationalist, and many citizens see the presence of foreign troops as a threat to Indonesia's sovereignty.

"Foreigners are welcome - civilians, that is," said Tifatul Sembiring, president of the influential Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), an Islamist group. "The disaster is too big for us to handle on our own," Mr. Sembiring said, "but foreigners should help in a humanitarian sense, not a military one."

The PKS, which holds about 8 percent of the seats in parliament and is a key ally of new President Susilo Bambang Yudoyono, wants foreign troops out within a month. The party is one of Indonesia's best organized and was one of the first organizations to enter Aceh after the tsunami. Aceh is "still a conflict zone, so we want to avoid provocation," says Sembiring.

Malik Mahfud, GAM's self-styled prime minister who lives in exile in Sweden, says the group remains committed to a cease-fire they declared on Dec. 26 and that they will do nothing to threaten relief workers.

Though Indonesia has also said it has suspended operations against the group, there have been scattered reports of ongoing fighting.

GAM has been fighting Indonesian troops since 1975, and there have been atrocities by both sides, with assassinations of public officials by GAM and occasional "collective punishment" expeditions by Indonesian soldiers that have left hundreds of civilians dead.

Some analysts expressed hope that the scale of Aceh's tragedy, which killed loyalists and rebels alike, might bring the two sides closer together, but that is looking increasingly unlikely.

Officials in Banda Aceh said they worried that the turmoil in post-tsunami Aceh might even lead to intensified fighting, though there are no signs of that yet.

On Wednesday, the USS Abraham Lincoln, an aircraft carrier being used to stage helicopter relief flights to the province, left Indonesian waters after the country declined permission for its pilots to carry on with training flights, the AP reported.

Navy rules require pilots to fly at least every two weeks or they lose their combat ratings and have to undergo extensive retraining.

Though officials said any disruption to aid flows will be minimal, it was a reminder that politics may make relief efforts much more complicated.

"There will clearly be problems if foreigners' movements are restricted, if only because of the pride of the Indonesian military,'' says the Rev. Sandyawan Sumardi, who coordinates the Indonesian group Humanitarian Volunteer Network. "It should be a priority to help the victims, not maintaining the pride of the armed forces."

Aid workers in Aceh say that so far, there has been no formal notification of the changes in rules, and that, as yet, they are not being aggressively enforced.

Shaista Aziz, an aid worker with Oxfam International in Banda Aceh, says the group is working as normal.

"It is very clear the tsunami is one of the biggest disasters of our time. Any restrictions on any agency would hurt the people that are already suffering."

So far, she noted, "Oxfam has received full cooperation from the Indonesian government, and hopes it would continue in the future."

Staff writer Dan Murphy contributed to this report. Wire services were used.

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