Mon, 12 May 2003

Acehnese stock up on food

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Acehnese scrambled to store basic commodities on Sunday, one day before the deadline for separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) to abandon its demand for independence and disarm -- two non- negotiable prerequisites for peace talks to resume.

Meanwhile, peace facilitator, the Henry Dunant Centre (HDC), made a last-ditch effort on Sunday to spare Aceh from plunging into an all-out war, persuading the rebels to talk with the Jakarta government.

Residents of provincial capital Banda Aceh rushed to traditional markets and department stores throughout Sunday to buy various basic commodities in large amounts.

Virtually all roads to markets and department stores were crowded with motorcycles and cars, with people, especially women, flocking to traders selling basic commodities.

"I am buying basic commodities in large amounts to anticipate food shortages due to mass strikes protesting the government's decision to launch a military operation," Banda Aceh resident Nelli was quoted by Antara as saying on Sunday.

GAM leaders have called for a mass strike on May 12, the deadline for the rebels to accept the special autonomy status and disarm if they want to avoid an armed showdown with government troops. The secessionist movement had rejected the ultimatum.

The panic buying has pushed up prices of some commodities in the city of 370,000 people. The price of red chillies, for example, rose from Rp 7,000 to Rp 22,000 per kilogram, tomato from Rp 2,000 to Rp 4,000 per kilogram, and shallots from Rp 8,000 to Rp 10,000 per kilogram.

The prices of rice, sugar, cooking oil, and flour, however, remained unchanged.

Ramli, a trader in Banda Aceh market, said the price increases were due to rumors of a massive strike on May 12.

"As of today, goods ferried with trucks from Medan cannot enter Banda Aceh anymore," Ramli said.

David Gorman, HDC representative in Aceh, said on Sunday that mediators met GAM representatives in Stockholm, Sweden on Saturday to try to persuade them to return to the negotiating table. GAM's exiled top leadership is based in Sweden.

The talks, Gorman said, had yielded "positive" results.

"We are still talking with the government and seeing what type of last-minute achievement can be made. We are doing whatever we can do to avoid a military operation and renewed fighting," Gorman was quoted by AFP.

"The people of Aceh are generally very troubled and concerned about the situation," Gorman said.

More than 50 peace monitors from Thailand, the Philippines and Norway were preparing to leave the province on Sunday, strengthening speculations that an all-out war was imminent.

Thousands of villagers fled their homes in northern Aceh on Sunday to avoid clashes between government troops and GAM, adding to signs that civil war has returned to the country's westernmost province, where the rebels have been fighting for independence since 1976. Over 10,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since then.

Police detained on Friday four GAM negotiators at the airport as they attempted to leave the province. The four -- Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba, Pen Teuka Kamaluruzaman, Amir Bin Achmad Marzuki and Amri Bin Abdul Wahab -- are all senior members of the Joint Security Council (JSC) set up by HDC to help monitor a cease-fire agreement signed in December 2002.

The four were released on Sunday, after being declared "terrorist suspects" in past bombings in Indonesia. Their movements have been restricted to the capital.

Rebels meanwhile killed a policeman and critically wounded another, police said Sunday. A member of the Brimob paramilitary force was killed on Saturday in an ambush in East Aceh, they said. Rebels shot and critically wounded another policeman in North Aceh.

The military has been gearing up for a military offensive against GAM, should the separatists fail to meet the government's Monday deadline for resuming peace talks.

On Thursday it dispatched 6,300 fresh troops to Aceh from Surabaya, East Java, and on Sunday an additional 625 marines were sent to the troubled province from the Jakarta Naval Base.

The military currently has an estimated 30,000 troops stationed in Aceh, while the police and Mobile Brigade Unit (Brimob) forces add another 12,000.

Military top brass have said that the force in Aceh would be bolstered with up to 50,000 personnel to fight against an estimated of 3,000 armed GAM separatist rebels. They have vowed to crush the rebels within six months

Violence has been on the rise in recent weeks in Aceh, following the cancellation of crucial talks between the government and GAM late last month to rescue the floundering cease-fire agreement.