Sat, 12 Aug 2000

Tension escalates in Aceh ahead of Aug. 17 celebration

BANDA ACEH, Aceh (JP): Tension is escalating in the disputed province of Aceh ahead of Indonesian Independence Day celebrations on Aug. 17 as many residents fear possible mass violence if they hoist the national flag.

Acting Aceh governor Ramli Ridwan called on the people to hoist the flag, but quickly added that "in Aceh's case, only government offices and related institutions are obliged to raise the red-and-white flag."

"If the situation improves, people should hoist the flag... otherwise, do not push it. We (government) realize that we cannot guarantee the safety of the people, so it's better not to force it," Ramli told reporters on Friday.

The national flag is usually hoisted nationwide, two days before and two days after the Aug. 17 day of independence.

Most Acehnese fear that clashes may erupt in the region as members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) often launch a counter independence campaign and forbid the hoisting of the Indonesian flag.

M. Husin, a local from Pidie regency, said people feared that the security troops would force them to raise the flag.

"In the past, the troops would take anyone refusing to hoist the national flag to a nearby military subdistrict office.

"Now, we're more scared and if we choose to do so, GAM troops will pull flags down and the two forces (security personnel and rebels) might come face-to-face and clashes would be inevitable," Husin said.

Aceh Police chief Brig. Gen. Doddy Sumantyawan maintained, however, that all regions in Aceh were obliged to hoist the national flag.

Pidie, as well as other North Aceh regencies, is known as a GAM stronghold.

Since the implementation of a three-month humanitarian pause on June 2, 2000, at least 47 people have been killed and dozens others have gone missing, mostly in conflicts pitting civilians against rebels and government troops.

Meanwhile, an eruption of fresh violence rocked Aceh as four trucks loaded with two platoons of joint police-military troops were intercepted by gunmen in the village of Jurek in Krueng Sabee district, West Aceh, on Thursday at noon.

"One of the trucks drove over a bomb planted by the attackers on a road in Jurek village and soon after the explosion, gunfights erupted," West Aceh Police chief Supt. Satrya Hari Prasetya said on Friday.

No casualties were reported in the incident as the troops managed to seize weapons, including two bombs and several grenades.

Separately, the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras) in Aceh sent a protest letter to the Teuku Umar Military Command, stating that four Jurek villagers had been arrested following the incident.

"One of the villagers, Ilyas, 30, was found dead with gunshot wounds on Friday morning on the side of the road connecting Banda Aceh and Meulaboh in Teunom district," Kontras' Zulfikar said in a statement on Friday.

Three other civilians, all 30-year-old Jurek villagers, who were apparently arrested were identified as M. Yunus bin Yusuf, Nurdin bin Hasan and Bahrum bin Husen.

Kontras quoted witnesses as saying that three motorbikes had been seized after the shootings.

The province has also been shaken by cases of poisonous cigarettes in the past couple of weeks, reportedly causing the deaths of five people and the victimization of hundreds of others.

The latest poisonous cigarette occurrence is blamed for the death of a local from Peuniti subdistrict in Banda Aceh, Burhanuddin, 48.

"He died after being treated for about 85 minutes," Ida, a staff member at the private Malahayati Hospital, said on Thursday.

Chief of Aceh's Food and Drug Control Agency Iskani said on Thursday that a preliminary investigation had revealed that the cigarettes contained traces of pesticides.

"We'll coordinate with the police. It's amazing that such cases only hit Aceh and not other provinces," he said.

GAM's Darwis Jenib, however, said his group had apprehended 20 people who were allegedly responsible for injecting pesticides into cigarettes, and also certain foods.

"They claimed to have been paid Rp 50,000 per day by some field operators to poison the food and cigarettes. We know the operators are closely associated with members of the special forces in the DOM (military operation) era," he said.

In Jakarta, Munir, head of the supervisory board of Kontras, hinted that the Attorney General's Office and the National Commission for Human Rights would further investigate the disappearance of Aceh human rights activist Jafar Siddiq Hamzah.

"Jafar is chief of the New York-based International Forum for Aceh (IFA) concerning human rights abuses. His disappearance is certainly linked to other missing activists in Aceh," Munir told journalists in Jakarta after a meeting with Attorney General Marzuki Darusman.

Jafar's whereabouts have remained a mystery since last Saturday when he visited relatives in the North Sumatra capital of Medan. The relatives say they lost contact with him.

Kontras believes the Indonesian Military (TNI) is responsible for what it calls the professionally executed disappearance of Jafar, which left no trace of clues or no witnesses. (50/edt/bby)