Sat, 21 Jun 2003

Army chief suggests Nessen could be a spy

Indonesia's army chief of staff on Friday questioned whether an American journalist hiding with rebels in Aceh province was really a reporter, suggesting he may be a spy who could be executed if captured and convicted, a report said.

William Nessen, who has a journalist visa to work for the San Francisco Chronicle, has been with the Free Aceh Movement since last month. He defied a military order to turn himself into the army by June 14, saying he first needed assurances that he would not be jailed.

"If William Nessen is really an intelligence agent then the punishment is serious, but if he is truly a journalist then there is no problem," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu was quoted as saying by Antara news agency.

He added Nessen could face the death penalty if found guilty, the report said.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said Nessen had violated his visa by writing for publications other than the Chronicle -- a common practice among freelancers -- and could be deported.

Nessen, a 46-year-old New York City native, said he was in Aceh to report on the latest military offensive to crush the rebel Free Aceh Movement. More than 200 people have died in the fighting since the operation began May 19.

He said he was there to gather information for a book and documentary on Aceh. He said he hasn't published stories or photographs on the conflict for some time because he lost his laptop and other possessions.

A search of news databases showed he last reported for the Chronicle in December and his last story for another client, the Sydney Morning Herald, was in January.

This has led to speculation in Indonesian newspapers and comments by Indonesia's military that Nessen is not a real reporter and is with the rebels in Aceh for other reasons. -- AP