Mon, 30 Oct 2000

Men sweep hotels in Surakarta

JAKARTA (JP): Notwithstanding the government's efforts to ease tensions with the U.S. government, dozens of men clad in green military-style uniforms stormed into a number of international hotels in Surakarta, Central Java, on Sunday demanding that American guests leave the country.

Hotel staff were reportedly warned that checks would be held at the hotels for American guests and, if found, they would be asked to leave the country within 48 hours.

"About 40 or 50 of them came in... they were wearing these uniforms, with the words Lasykar Islam Hizbullah on them. They said that if they found American guests, they would warn them to leave the country within 48 hours," operations manager of the Lord Inn, Budi Chandra, told The Jakarta Post by phone.

"They were calm and did not seem to want to cause trouble. But they were very clear on what they wanted."

"I gave them the guest list printout as there were really no Americans staying with us. They became cool after that," he said.

"They told me that if they found any American guests, they would tell (the guests) that the U.S. had caused problems in Indonesia and Palestine, and that, as a result, they were given 48 hours to leave the country."

Meanwhile, a receptionist at the Novotel said that dozens of men had stormed that hotel as well, asking hotel staff if any American guests were staying there.

"Those men were pushy... and we've never faced anything like this before. I really can't say much. We've been instructed by our operations manager not to say anything," the receptionist, who requested anonymity, said.

The actions were a result of rising anti-American sentiment following the arrest of an American citizen, Aaron War Maness, on Oct. 21 over an allegation of espionage. The government, however, has issued a statement, dismissing the allegation that Maness had been involved in espionage in Irian Jaya.

While presidential officials were quick to play down the incident and cool tensions, House of Representatives (DPR) legislators demanded that U.S. Ambassador Robert Gelbard be declared persona non grata.

The U.S. Embassy here, which temporarily closed its public services section last week after receiving an unspecified threat, announced on Saturday that it would remain closed to the public until at least Wednesday.

"The Embassy will be closed to the public on Monday, Oct. 30 and Tuesday, Oct. 31.

"The closure is in response to a credible threat to the Embassy and our desire to reduce the risk to members of the public who might be visiting the Embassy," it said in a statement on Saturday.

The U.S. embassy has been the subject of almost daily protests by students and Muslim groups here since violence erupted between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East earlier this month.

Muslim groups and students have accused Washington of siding with the Jewish state.

The extension of the closure was the latest in a series of diplomatic spats between Jakarta and Washington.

Defense Minister Mahfud M.D. and several nationalistic legislators have been at odds with Gelbard. They accused Gelbard of meddling in Indonesia's internal affairs.

A U.S. embassy press release retorted on Friday that it was "deeply disappointed" by the actions of Cabinet members "who seem determined to create a rift in an otherwise historically strong bilateral relationship".

It added that Mahfud had "perpetuated falsehoods" including a charge that an American citizen arrested last week had been spying.

"Once again, the embassy laments that the defense minister's reported false accusatory statements ... are contributing to a disinformation campaign that is creating a rapidly deteriorating environment hostile to U.S. interests in Indonesia including investment and tourism," it said.

President Abdurrahman Wahid, responding to suggestions that Gelbard be declared persona non grata, replied on Saturday: "Never."

"An ambassador is an envoy of a sovereign country so we must honor him rather than declaring him persona non grata," Abdurrahman was quoted by Antara as saying.

A senior observer said on Sunday that personalities, not bilateral policies, are at the center of the current tension as well as Indonesian domestic politics and the U.S. failure to condemn Israel's use of force against Palestinians.

"I think it is a combination of these factors," political analyst Soedjati Djiwandono told The Jakarta Post in a telephone interview.

Soedjati said that "there is also an endeavor to exploit the issue of Ambassador (Gelbard) for political purposes.

"It is not unlikely that this forms part of the effort to weaken the President," Soedjati said.

Critics of Abdurrahman have stepped up their attacks in recent days, making concerted calls for his resignation, accusing him of corruption and demanding a special session of the People's Consultative Assembly to unseat him.

Soedjati said that "under the circumstances, adopting a hostile attitude to Washington is wrong".

"I don't think that the nation can afford that ... our policy towards the world should serve the country's national interests," he said. (byg/ylt)