Mon, 17 Mar 2003

New violence mars fragile Aceh peace

Ibnu Matnoor, The Jakarta Post, Banda Aceh

The killing of four Acehnese in the latest spree of violence on Saturday has increased the distrust between the government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), pushing their three-month-old peace agreement closer to the brink of collapse.

Two Acehnese burned to death when an unidentified armed group set fire to 12 cars during a sweeping operation near the town of Takengon in Central Aceh.

A drive-by shooting near the town of Lhokseumawe in North Aceh killed another two.

"The peace agreement has reached a critical period," said Aceh observer Otto Syamsuddin Ishak of the Civil Society Alliance for Democracy (Yappika) in Jakarta.

He said that despite the steady progress in implementing the articles of the peace accord, mutual confidence on both sides was running thin.

The Indonesian Military (TNI) and GAM blame each other for the violation of the cease-fire accord, showing little of the confidence building that the agreement demanded.

In Takengon, a group of about 40 men stopped vehicles passing the village of Burlintang in Pegasing district, some 15 kilometers southeast of Banda Aceh, and eventually set fire to 12 cars and four motorcycles.

It was not clear why they burned the cars after ordering everybody inside to step out. Two people were killed in the fire.

Spokesman of the Iskandar Muda military command, Lt. Col. Firdaus Kamarno, said witnesses described the group as not resembling members of either the police or the military.

He suspected they were GAM. When soldiers and police arrived on the scene, the group had already left, Firdaus said.

Meanwhile, Amri Abdul Wahab, a senior GAM commander and a member of the Joint Security Committee (JSC) peace monitoring body, said GAM was not involved.

Instead, he said the Takengon incident was likely the work of pro-Jakarta militias who had the backing of the military.

Elsewhere, some 10 kilometers east of Lhokseumawe in North Aceh, two people were shot dead by unidentified men in a drive-by shooting.

Amri said one of the victims was a GAM police officer, 26-year-old Azhar Z. Abidin. The other victim was identified as 24-year-old student Sayuti.

Azhar, said Amri, was his adopted younger brother and was about to get married on Sunday. "This morning, he should be sitting with his family at the wedding reception," he said.

The two victims were riding a motorcycle to shop for the wedding, when an unmarked vehicle pulled up and shot them.

The killer stepped out and drove away with the victim's motorcycle, while a terrified crowd stood witness to the crime.

Otto suspected the Takengon killing and other recent incidents seemed to follow a strategy designed to wreck the peace accord.

"There are obviously some parties who will lose out if the peace agreement holds," Otto said, suspecting that these parties belonged to the government and the military.

He also criticized GAM for failing to restrain itself from raising the issue of independence, which TNI had used as the reason for its continued heavy presence in the province.

The peace agreement is essentially a cease-fire agreement on which to negotiate peace. But GAM has been telling Acehnese that the accord could later lead to independence, while the government said it signified the start of Aceh's permanent integration into Indonesia.

GAM has been fighting for the independence of its resource- rich province for 26 years, in a war that has claimed some 12,000 lives.