Sun, 25 Nov 2001

U.S. embassy staff come 'home'

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

While continuing to warn Americans against traveling to Indonesia unless absolutely necessary, the U.S. government has allowed its embassy personnel and their families, who left Indonesia because of perceived threats, to return.

It is estimated that some 100 Americans, mostly nonessential staff at the embassy and their dependents, left Indonesia in September and October following threats from local groups to "sweep" Americans in response to the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan.

"Although the Department of State has authorized the return of all embassy and consulate personnel and family members effective Nov. 25, the security situation in many parts of Indonesia puts Americans at potential risk," said the latest travel warning from the State Department in Washington on Friday.

Sources at the U.S. Embassy said the U.S. government had waited this long to ease the travel warning to Indonesia because of warnings from senior Indonesian officials of possible repercussions at home if the U.S. action in Afghanistan continued into the Ramadhan fasting month, which began on Nov. 17.

The Indonesian government had earlier urged Washington to stop the bombing campaign in Afghanistan before the start of Ramadhan, saying that domestic public opinion in predominantly Muslim countries could turn against America.

But with the situation in Afghanistan rapidly changing, from the fall of Kabul to the Northern Alliance opposition forces to the near-collapse of the Taliban regime, the Afghanistan conflict is no longer perceived as a war between the U. S. and Afghanistan, in the way it was seen hitherto by many people.

With Ramadhan entering its second week, the Indonesian government's concern over a renewed anti-U.S. backlash in Indonesia appears to have been overstated.

Anti-U.S. demonstrations were daily occurrences in the first two weeks after the U.S. started the air strikes against Afghanistan on Oct. 8. Several small but radical Muslim groups also threatened to harm American citizens or American interests, supposedly in retaliation for the U.S.-led bombing of Afghanistan.

There were several incidents of harassment of Americans and Europeans in the wake of the military engagement in Afghanistan, but Indonesian authorities managed to defuse the threats.

The State Department's travel advisory, however, urged Americans to defer nonessential travel to Indonesia and avoid all travel to trouble spots in Indonesia, including Aceh, Irian Jaya, Maluku, North Maluku, West Timor, Central and West Kalimantan and Central and South Sulawesi, because of the risk of violence.

Although Indonesia's frequent political demonstrations were usually peaceful, they could quickly turn violent with little forewarning, it said.

The State Department also warned of the likelihood of more bombings which, in the past, have struck religious, political and business targets throughout Indonesia.

"Additionally, there is information that extremist elements may be planning to target U.S. interests in Indonesia, particularly U.S. government facilities, but also possibly including commercial and other private targets," it said.