Thu, 20 Mar 2003

Central Aceh faces food crisis amid road block

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Thousands of people in Central Aceh face a severe food shortage, as roads leading in and out of the regency have been blocked by residents in neighboring Bireuen following last week's killing of two people by a suspected pro-Jakarta militia group terrorizing the area.

Supplies of basic commodities like rice, sugar, fish, kerosene, and other fuel was running low in the regency's capital town of Takengon, said one resident, Aman Ikoni, as quoted by Antara on Wednesday.

He said the shortages were becoming serious over the last couple of days and prices of the basic commodities have gone up.

Farmers also complained about not being able to sell their produce in markets outside the regency, and vegetables were rotting, Antara reported.

The embargo began with the erection of a road block two days ago on the main road connecting Central Aceh with Bireuen, said Aman Nisa, another resident of Takengon.

Aman said the blockade was initiated by residents of the Juli district in the Bireuen regency.

Hundreds of people have reportedly stopped vehicles heading for Takengon and ordered them to turn back. Vehicles from that town have not been allowed to enter Bireuen, and are thus not able to leave Central Aceh.

Aman Nisa said they were demanding that the authorities take action against the militia group in Takengon.

On Saturday last week an unidentified armed group stopped passing vehicles in Takengon, during an illegal road block that left two dead when the group set fire to at least 12 cars.

A drive-by shooting near the town of Lhokseumawe in North Aceh less than 100 kilometers away killed another two on the same day, although it was not clear if the incidents were connected.

The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) has blamed the violence on pro- Jakarta militias back by the military, but the Indonesian military (TNI) has denied any such links.

Takengon was also the site of a militia attack on the Joint Security Committee (JSC) office, which GAM blamed on a "Javanese- speaking" militia.

Saturday's incidents marked the latest round of violence that have partially eroded a cease-fire agreement signed in December between the Indonesian government and GAM.

GAM has been struggling for the independence of the natural resource-rich province since 1976. Some 12,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the war.

Although the level of violence has fallen sharply since the peace accord was signed, sporadic killings have continued.

Meanwhile, refugees in neighboring provinces, most of whom are ethnic Javanese transmigrants, have refused to return for fear of persecution from ethnic Acehnese.

But in North Sumatra thousands of the refugees are living on handouts from locals.

Jakarta suspended a Rp 105 billion (about US$11.79 million) aid program for the refugees, following reports that some Rp 2.6 billion had been embezzled by mid-level officials. The program is meant to cover some 12,000 families and each was to get Rp 8.75 million.

Several hundred refugee families have since been protesting to demand that the government disburse the funds.

One protester has died from starvation, and four others were rushed to hospitals after hunger strikes last week.

Responding to the protests, an official at the Ministry of Social Affairs Amrun Daulay said that Jakarta would disburse the aid, pending the registration of refugees, Antara reported.

North Sumatra officials on Wednesday began to register the eligible refugees, but it was not clear how long that would take.