Sat, 11 Nov 2000

Govt warns organizers of Aceh mass rally

JAKARTA (JP): While thousands of Acehnese were bracing for the popular assembly for peace, the government issued a stern warning to organizers of the rally on Friday not to inflame separatist passion.

Coordinating Minister for Politics, Social and Security Affairs Gen. (ret.) Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in Magelang, Central Java, that firm actions would be taken to prevent the mass rally from turning into a popular call for a referendum on independence.

"A political settlement under the humanitarian pause is underway, so it's difficult to accept such sudden political activity asking people to choose whether they want to stay with Indonesia or seek independence. This is wrong from both legal and political points of view," Susilo said.

Susilo, who retired from the military after his appointment to the Cabinet, was bidding farewell to the Army in a ceremony at Magelang's Military Academy. Other retirees included Minister of Trade and Industry Gen. (ret.) Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan and Minister of Communications Lt. Gen. (ret.) Agum Gumelar.

Susilo said the government had reminded all parties to maintain their patience since two or three days before.

"People are free to express their aspirations in a democratic country, but such a huge mass mobilization is feared to cause conflict (and) it certainly must be stopped," Susilo said.

Police have claimed that at least 14 people were killed and 17 others injured in incidents across the province over the past few days as security personnel blocked access to Banda Aceh, staving would-be participants of the assembly off.

Organizer of the rally SIRA RAKAN put the death toll at 30 and claimed that hundreds of others have been injured by security personnel.

Banda Aceh was reportedly calm on Friday, as violence erupted near the border with other regencies as authorities intensified efforts to block access to the city.

Only a few private vehicles were seen on the city's streets, while many stores were closed, forcing an increase in prices on basic commodities.

At least 25,000 Acehnese were taking shelter at Syiah Kuala university compound where they performed the Friday prayer. Dozens of security troops were seen standing on alert to prevent more residents from coming or leaving the area.

The mass gathering's organizer deputy chief Muhammad Saleh disclosed reports that security personnel are currently holding back hundreds of vehicles, carrying thousands of residents from various areas who would attend the gathering.

Thousands of residents in various areas near Banda Aceh said they had to return home on foot as tens of trucks and buses they were riding on had been pierced by bullets by security officers conducting checking operations.

Police had intensified efforts to hamper Acehnese from entering Banda Aceh by setting up barricades and conducting tight security and paper checks.

In the East Aceh regency, local police precinct chief Supt. Abdullah Hayati, escorted by four trucks and an armored vehicle, told 5,000 residents at Langsa bus terminal to peacefully return home and guaranteed their safety.

The passengers, who could not break through the police barricades but decided to stay, sought shelter in nearby mosques and local residents' houses.

Five people from the humanitarian pause committee, including a member of the Swiss advocacy group the Henry Dunant Center, were held in the Padang Tiji and Meureudu areas before they headed to East Aceh.

Separately, National Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Saleh Saaf said on Friday that the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was behind the deaths of several civilians on their way to Banda Aceh on Thursday.

"Five civilians were killed and two police officers were injured in East Aceh when a GAM member threw a grenade from a truck when the vehicle was stopped for a document check," Saleh told reporters at the National Police Headquarters.

The Aceh Besar police precinct had also summoned the coordinator of the Information Center for Aceh Referendum (SIRA) Muhammad Nazar to appear as a suspect, claiming that he was responsible for creating public disorder during the commemoration of Independence Day on Aug. 17.

In Jakarta meanwhile, some 300 Acehnese, some brandishing separatist flags, rallied outside the Dutch Embassy to press for demands for UN intervention to end the violence in Aceh.

In response to the increasing violence, secretary-general of National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) Asmara Nababan called on security forces and other parties there to exercise restraint and avoid the use of force. (02/50/lup/dja/jaw)