Sun, 11 May 2003

Peace monitors ordered to evacuate Aceh

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

As the shadow of war looms in Aceh, members of the Joint Security Committee (JSC) from Thailand and the Philippines have been ordered to return to their countries before Monday.

Coordinator David Gorman of the Aceh peace broker, the Henry Dunant Centre (HDC), confirmed the report, but said the JSC members were still waiting for the results of last-ditch efforts to save the peace agreement signed by the government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in December last year.

"We are giving one last chance today ... as yet, they (the JSC members) are still here," Gorman told The Jakarta Post on Saturday.

The JSC consists of representatives of GAM, the Indonesian government and the HDC, and is tasked with monitoring the implementation of the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) signed in Geneva on Dec. 9, 2002.

Gorman said the HDC was waiting for both the Indonesian government and GAM to respond in regards the planned meeting of the Joint Council, the highest peace monitoring body. The meeting aims to evaluate the peace agreement.

"Only after the last attempt fails, will the JSC members leave the province," Gorman stressed.

Jakarta has set a May 12 deadline for GAM to return to the negotiating table after fulfilling the conditions of its accepting the special autonomy and disarming its troops. But GAM has so far refused to budge.

Violence has been on the rise over the past few months, with both Jakarta and GAM trading blame.

The English-language Nation daily quoted the Armed Forces Supreme Command's General Suraphol Chinachit as saying that the peace monitors had been told to withdraw from Aceh as the peace pact between the government and GAM neared collapse.

The forty-six Thai soldiers assigned to the mission are to return to their home country on Sunday.

Surin Pitsuwan, one of the three international mediators, said, however, there was still a chance for peace.

"I do not think we should be discouraged that a long, violent conflict cannot be resolved in one or two attempts. That is unrealistic," the paper quoted Surin.

A source close to the peace process told AFP that meetings were underway in Stockholm with GAM leaders and in Jakarta with the government to bring the government and the rebels together to avert a government-backed military offensive. U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni was assisting in the Stockholm talks, the source said.

A Western diplomatic source also said Japanese, European and U.S. diplomats had asked to meet President Megawati Soekarnoputri a few days ago to express their concerns. They were told she was unavailable until Tuesday, "which, as you know, is the day after the ultimatum expires. This is extremely disappointing," the source said.

Some 50 Acehnese community leaders were in Jakarta this week also trying to meet with Megawati to push the case for peace. They, too, said they were denied a chance to meet with her.

An unofficial war began in the province last week, with gun fights on the increase, after the planned Joint Council meeting on April 25 failed to materialize.

Thousands of Acehnese in Bireun regency have fled from their homes, while hundreds of other residents from Central Aceh regency had entered the Aceh capital of Banda Aceh within the past few days, seeking safety.

The government expected up to 200,000 people would be displaced if the military operation was launched, and have allocated Rp 400 billion for a humanitarian mission to help the refugees.

The Indonesian Military (TNI) has been sending more troops to the province, while GAM has ordered its guerrillas to return to their positions and consolidate ranks at their bases.

Meanwhile, forty-eight JSC members from GAM reportedly left the Rajawali hotel in Banda Aceh, where they were staying, leaving their equipment behind.

Hotel owner Cut Nur Asikin said on Saturday that they had left the hotel on Thursday without notifying the hotel management.

"But the rest of the 48 members from Thailand and the Philippines are still staying at my hotel," Nur said as quoted by Antara.

Meanwhile, four GAM negotiators, who were arrested on Friday while they were about to leave on an overseas trip, remained in police custody.