Sun, 24 Aug 2003

No end in sight for GAM hostages

The Jakarta Post, Lhokseumawe, Aceh

Farida has spent much of her time reading the Koran and praying to God during the past two months.

The Acehnese woman has not seen her husband and children since Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels captured her, her sister Soraya and two RCTI television crew intending to interview refugees in Peureulak, East Aceh on June 29.

The sisters, reporter Ersa Siregar, cameraman Ferry Santoro and their driver have been moved from place to place by the rebels, evading soldiers who are searching for them.

A sobbing Farida recently told The Jakarta Post by telephone from an undisclosed location in East Aceh that she was longing to be reunited with her family.

Soraya was suffering the most, Farida said, as was in the early stages of her pregnancy. The two are married to Air Force officers.

All the hostages have been placed in separate GAM locations. Farida, the wife of Lt. Col. Azhari, said the rebels had allowed them to contact their families and relatives by satellite phone.

"I just called my husband and told him that I'm okay. They (GAM rebels) treat me well and even allowed a doctor to check my sister's condition. There is nothing I can do but leave it to God."

However it is unlikely the sisters will see their families anytime soon.

GAM initially accused the captives of espionage but after intense questioning were declared clean.

Complications arose when the rebels planned to release Ersa, Ferry and their driver.

GAM commander overseeing East Aceh Ishak Daud, the man who claimed responsibility for the capture of the civilians, said he had been planning to release 10 hostages, including the RCTI crew, to the Indonesian Red Cross (PMI), which has been mediating in negotiations, sometime before Indonesian Independence Day on Aug. 17.

But Ishak dropped the plan as the military rejected his conditions, including that the military impose a week-long ceasefire and keep away from the release process.

Ishak said the ceasefire was needed as the rebels needed sufficient time to avoid a possible ambush by the military.

The military says it has deployed hundreds of soldiers to attack suspected GAM bases in East Aceh and is prepared for an assault.

Ishak said other conditions included that the military not interrogate the captives so as to keep their positions secret.

"It's unfair if the television crew is placed in military custody for questioning," Ishak said.

Both Ersa and Ferry, who just won awards from the Association of Independent Journalists, were not available to question.

Ishak suggested that Farida and Soraya would only be released if the military released the wives of GAM members in military custody.

"We may hold them quite a while longer as the military has also arrested several of our members' wives," he said,

Farida asked the martial law administrator in Aceh do what it took to release her and other civilians held by GAM.

"Please, tell the military to find the best solution because I really want to go home and see my family."

GAM is also detaining 39 village heads for allegedly supplying the military with information on GAM activities.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki said it would not negotiate with GAM.

He said the military had asked the PMI help to negotiate the release of the hostages and was ready to provide the PMI with security cover.

"The soldiers are needed to ensure the safety of the humanitarian workers," Yani told the Post on Friday.