Thu, 12 Feb 2004

Red Cross appeals for safe access to Acehnese

Tiarma Siboro and Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) urged on Wednesday the two warring parties in Aceh to allow humanitarian workers to move around freely when carrying out their duties there.

It also called on both the Indonesian Military (TNI) and Free Aceh Movement (GAM) not to interfere in the work of humanitarian volunteers to prevent them from harm.

"There are a lot of things in Aceh that PMI should do, but if both TNI and GAM fail to ensure freedom of movement for us, I don't think we can continue with our humanitarian mission," PMI secretary-general Iyang D. Sukandar said.

"We (PMI) do not wish to carry out such a mission until we are assured that the team of volunteers will be safe," he said.

Iyang was apparently referring to a recent clash between TNI personnel and GAM members in Bagok district, East Aceh, on Monday.

During the clash, the TNI claimed to have rescued PMI volunteers, who were allegedly under GAM protection. The medical volunteers had entered a GAM stronghold to treat villagers suffering from illnesses.

Bagok district, located about 50 kilometers from Peurelak regency, is believed to be a GAM stronghold. The PMI team visited the area at the invitation of GAM leaders to treat sick villagers and was promised it could meet civilian hostages, including Fery Santoro, a TV journalist from RCTI TV station.

GAM spokesman Teungku Mansor was reportedly killed in the clash, while a volunteer, Budiman Ramli, went missing.

"I have contacted (GAM commander overseeing East Aceh) Ishak Daud, asking him to release our volunteer if he was being held by GAM.

"He (Ishak) promised to do so even though he has yet to ascertain if Budiman was with GAM personnel," Iyang told The Jakarta Post.

Ishak promised to protect Budiman if he were with GAM, but "as of today I don't know exactly whether he is still in that location," Iyang said.

In Jakarta, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for Asia Pacific Reto Meister said that his office would help secure the release of civilian captives on condition that both warring parties agreed to a cease-fire.

ICRC backed out of efforts to release hostages currently held by GAM last month after TNI and GAM failed to agree on security arrangements for its volunteers.

Meanwhile, TNI chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto said on Wednesday that the military was ready to launch another operation to rescue hostages currently held by GAM as soon as possible.

"We have identified their locations and are ready to launch the operation soon," the four-star general said on Wednesday.

He added that detailed information on the movement of GAM personnel and their hostages had been obtained by the military in Aceh.

"We need the data to ensure that there will be minimal casualties when we carry out military action to release the civilian hostages," Endriartono said.

He said the military was still giving GAM a chance to enter into negotiations to release the hostages but stressed that preparations were still in hand for a possible rescue operation.