Sat, 26 Apr 2003

Anxiety clouds Aceh as peace talks canceled

Nani Farida, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh, Aceh

Following the cancellation of a Joint Council meeting between the government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the military in Aceh has been put on high alert while awaiting possible deployments orders.

Residents of Aceh are now living under the cloud of the possible resumption of hostilities between the military and rebels.

Iskandar Muda Military Commander Maj. Gen. Djali Yusuf announced here on Friday that all combat troops in the province had been put on high alert to prepare them for deployment if President Megawati Soekarnoputri orders the military to launch a military operation.

"Although a red alert has been declared, we are still in defensive positions waiting for an order from Jakarta," he told local and foreign journalists.

He added that the red alert was only for security personnel, not for civilians.

Djali said that where the 1989-1998 military operation in the province was massive, any operation that was launched now would take place in stages.

He said earlier that any new military operation would take six months.

The government decided not to send representatives to the Joint Council meeting scheduled for April 25 in Geneva because GAM insisted the meeting be held on April 27.

Angered by GAM's insistence on the meeting's date, top security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the government would no longer bow down to GAM.

The government called for the Joint Council meeting to discuss violations of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement the two sides signed in Geneva on Dec. 9, 2002, through the mediation of the Henry Dunant Centre. The government has accused GAM of failing to lay down its arms and of violating the peace agreement by collecting taxes from the Acehnese people and campaigning for independence.

Residents of Aceh regretted the cancellation of the Joint Council meeting, saying it was a clear signal that war would soon begin in the province.

Ipul, 31, a pedicab driver near the Banda Aceh Grand Mosque, said he hoped the peace process would continue because his daily income was dropping sharply as tension in the province escalated.

"Residents in the city are afraid to leave their houses, especially at night," he said.

Fauzan, 35, a food vendor in the city, was frustrated by the prospect of resumed military operations.

"What are we? We are just ordinary people who can do nothing to change the situation," he said.

The situation in the declared peace zone in the Indrapuri district in Aceh Besar regency, some 23 kilometers east of Banda Aceh, was much the same as in the provincial capital.

Although the security situation was normal, residents could not hide their concern. A sign bearing the words "peace zone" had been painted over with the words "war zone".

"I don't know who painted the sign. Surely, he or she does not want peace in Aceh," said Maimunah, 56, a cucumber vendor.

Muhammad, a resident of Indrapuri district, said: "I don't know what will happen if war breaks out. Maybe we will all starve."

Meanwhile, two members of GAM were killed during a raid by security forces in the village of Ulee Jalan, Banda Aceh district, North Aceh regency, at dawn on Friday.

"They were shot by security personnel," GAM spokesman Teungku Jamaika said.

Lhokseumawe Police chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Eko Daryanto confirmed two people had been shot and killed, saying the pair often extorted money from local residents.