Sun, 15 Jun 2003

Nessen wants safe passage out of RI

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

American journalist William Nessen did not comply on Saturday with the Indonesian Military (TNI) ultimatum to leave the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebel group and report to the military.

He said that he would only go if he was allowed to leave Indonesia without arrest or interrogation.

Nessen did not heed the Saturday 6 p.m. deadline, set by Aceh military operation commander Brig. Gen. Bambang Darmono on Thursday. The TNI gave the deadline to allow time for Nessen to leave the GAM camp in order to avoid injury to the American journalist in the ongoing military offensive.

"I will come out if the TNI and the Indonesian government guarantee that I can leave the country without being arrested, interrogated or stopped," he told The Jakarta Post by telephone from his hiding place about 30 minutes after the deadline.

Aceh military operation spokesman Lt. Col. Achmad Yani Basuki could not be reached for comment on Nessen's demand.

Nessen said that he would like to be accompanied by a member of staff from the American Embassy and the International Red Cross should he decide to leave the rebels' hiding place.

Bambang had said earlier he had no objection to Nessen leaving the GAM camp to report to the military under the observance of an American diplomat.

Nessen, who is known to journalists in Aceh as Abu Billy, has been traveling with the rebel group since before the military operation began on May 19.

The military believes he has joined the group of GAM leader Muzakir Manaf.

Due to security concerns, Nessen declined to mention his hiding place. The military surmises that he might be in Nisam or Sawang area in the North Aceh regency.

Bambang has warned that Nessen's presence among the rebels will not hamper the ongoing military operation to quash the GAM separatists. The passing of the deadline meant that attacks against GAM positions would continue regardless of the American's presence among the GAM rebels.

On Thursday, the TNI displayed several of Nessen's belongings which he had left behind in haste when they raided the rebels' position a day earlier. Some of those items were pictures of him and his family and friends and also several of his videotapes. Footage from the tapes shown to journalists included him interviewing a young rebel and rebels engaged in a gunfight with Indonesian troops.

Nessen acknowledged that staying with the rebels would mean he remained in danger, but said he wanted to complete his coverage of them and tell the story of the 27-year-old independence struggle from their perspective.

A freelance journalist, Nessen's articles on Aceh have been published in many major newspapers around the world, including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Boston Globe.

Meanwhile, 34 residents of Blang Seupang village, Jeumpa subdistrict of Bireuen district, Aceh, said they had been tortured by a marine unit of the Indonesian Military. Four of them showed their wounds and told their experience to RCTI private television station and Radio 68-H.

But the marine commander, Second Lt. Danang Wahyu, whose unit was accused of torturing the civilians, vehemently denied the accusation.

"Why don't you journalists bring them (the villagers) here, so we can crosscheck the facts," he said.

The villagers, who forced Jakarta-based press cars to stop, told the TV and radio journalists that the marine units came on Friday at around 3 p.m. and asked them about the whereabouts of GAM members. The villagers said they knew nothing about GAM and said that the rebels only came to the village at night.

They claimed the marine unit members selected 34 people between 17 and 45 years old and told them to lay down. The marines began to walk on their bodies. Four of the villagers -- Mustafa Usman, Ibrahim, Mohammad and Majid -- were severely tortured.