Fri, 25 Feb 2000

Bantaqiah's relatives appeal for troop withdrawal in Aceh

JAKARTA (JP): Relatives of slain Islamic boarding school teacher Tengku Bantaqiah called on the government to withdraw troops from Aceh, saying their presence only propagated a climate of fear and terror.

"We plead for a troop withdrawal because there have been too many innocent casualties in Aceh," the group's leader, Tengku Zainudin, told journalists on Thursday.

"We know that troops arrived in Aceh to quell the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), but in the end, civilians have become the victims ... Our houses have been set on fire and people everywhere have been getting shot," Zainudin added.

Troops allegedly shot dead Bantaqiah, his first wife, his students and dozens of farmers in an antirebel raid in the remote Beutong area, some 100 kilometers south of the North Aceh capital of Lhokseumawe on July 23.

Local military officers maintain Bantaqiah and his students were allies of the separatists and that they were killed in an exchange of fire.

Witnesses and a government-sanctioned inquiry said, however, that the killings were executed by army troops.

Zainudin said the Beutong area is still besieged by troops and that people who want to return to the village would have to go through various intimidating security checkpoints.

He also said those who wanted to return to Beutong were sometimes accused of being GAM supporters.

"That is why people are still reluctant to return because there is no security guarantee ... We are actually not on anybody's side, we only want peace in Aceh," he added.

Bantaqiah's second wife, Manfarisyah said on Thursday that the group was in Jakarta to try to meet with President Abdurrahman Wahid to ask for better assurances for their security.

"We urge the government to guarantee our security so that we can resume our daily activities and reopen the Islamic boarding school," Manfarisyah said.

The trial of about 25 military personnel and civilians who were allegedly involved in the murder is scheduled to start in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh in early March.

Human rights activists doubted, however, that the trial would be able to disclose the mystery behind the killings as one of the prime suspects, Lt. Col. Sudjono, has been missing since November last year.

Aceh has been wracked by daily clashes between troops and rebels and supporters of the separatists. An estimated 200 people have been killed since the start of the year.

A decade of military operations against the rebels, which ended in 1998, and the siphoning off of the province's resources have fueled popular resentment against Jakarta.


Meanwhile in Banda Aceh, the Aceh Women's Congress Duek Pakat Inong Aceh recommended on Thursday that the government soon forge a government-sanctioned commission to investigate alleged rights violations in the restive province.

About 600 Acehnese women gathered in a five-day congress which ended late on Wednesday, demanded a similar commission which was established for East Timor rights cases to probe rights violations during the past decade.

The congress said that between 1989 and 1998, the military operation to crack down on alleged separatist movements claimed at least 1,021 lives. Another 864 people are still classified as missing.

The women also urged warring parties involved in the prolonged conflict to end their actions and that peace be immediately sought to free people from fear and intimidation.

"We will soon convey this message through a delegation to meet the central government and House of Representatives (DPR)," a media statement from the congress said.

"Women are the vital agents of social change," the statement said, adding that women should be given greater access in the decision-making process that affects the province.

They lamented that what practically began as a political conflict between the government and separatist rebels has escalated to unnecessary acts, such as the demolition of schools.

Provincial councillor O.K. Ibrahim, chief of the council's commission for welfare affairs, stated that at least 1,000 orphans aged between 10 and 15 years old have dropped out of school in the past year. (50/51/edt/byg)