Mon, 26 May 2003

Ministers visit Aceh to assess problems

The Jakarta Post, Aceh/Jakarta

High-powered government officials led by Coordinating Minister for People's Welfare Jusuf Kalla, made an unscheduled visit to Aceh on Sunday to tackle problems resulting from the declaration of martial law and the military operation.

The visit, the first since the renewed hostilities between government and rebel forces began last Monday was now seen as very vital because the government apparently did not make adequate preparations to tackle the many problems that have adversely affected many Acehnese civilians.

The government officials saw first hand the war's impact on the supply of basic commodities, public transportation, public services and education activities.

After the first seven days of military operations to quell the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), basic commodity prices have been on the rise as distribution lines to the province have been paralyzed by the war. Most public transportation has ceased entirely and education activities in many areas have been halted as hundreds of school buildings were burned down by unidentified arsonists.

In dealing with the threat of famine from the food shortages, Jusuf said that the government would immediately distribute basic commodities to war-torn areas via sea and land.

Minister of National Education Abdul Malik Fajar tried to calm students and their teachers, by saying the government would soon rehabilitate all school buildings torched over the last week assist with emergency classes for all students scheduled to take the upcoming national final exams.

The other Cabinet members in Aceh were Minister of Health Achmad Sujudi, Minister of Social Affairs Bachtiar Chamsyah and Minister of Settlements and Regional Infrastructure Soenarno.

As the government is facing a daunting task, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has pledged to extend aid to the province, DPA news agency reported.

With the arrival on Sunday of 20 tons of health kits and "emergency school" kits in Jakarta, UNICEF kicked off an emergency assistance program for Aceh.

A flight carrying hospital equipment and pharmaceuticals from Copenhagen, Denmark arrived in Jakarta on Sunday morning and was to continue Tuesday up to Banda Aceh, said UNICEF spokesman John Budd.

He said the emergency schools would consist of 50 tents with enough school-in-a-box kits for 16,000 students.

UNICEF has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis in Aceh, where 23,000 children have already been displaced as a result of previous fighting in a 27-year-old separatist struggle led by GAM.