Sat, 12 Apr 2003

U.S. embassy staff return to capital as security improves

Berni K. Moestafa, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The United States allowed on Friday its embassy staff to return to Jakarta after a six-month-long evacuation due to the threat of terrorism, signaling the return of security despite ongoing antiwar protests and deep anti-American sentiment.

"The State Department has authorized nonemergency U.S. employees to return to their diplomatic postings in Indonesia," said a State Department statement.

About 125 nonemergency staff members and their families left Indonesia within days after the Oct. 12 Bali terrorist strike, which killed more than 202 people, mainly foreigners.

Nonemergency employees make up about half of the embassy's staff in Jakarta, said embassy spokesperson Tim E. Gerhardson.

He said the staff's families, however, remained barred from coming back.

The authorization to return came after six months had passed since their withdrawal was ordered in October last year. It is the maximum period U.S. law allows for its staff to vacate embassies unless the security threat remains high, Gerhardson explained.

Washington ordered the evacuation of its staff at the embassy and its consulate in Surabaya after receiving a series of threats against American interests in the lead-up to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes.

U.S. embassies in several Asian countries and the Middle East were temporarily closed during and after the anniversary. The embassy in Jakarta was the first to suspend operations.

The security jitters led Washington to issue a travel advisory warning Americans against visiting Indonesia, and Gerhardson said the advisory remained in effect.

However, the partial lifting of the evacuation order reflects an improvement of Indonesia's security situation.

Fears of more attacks after the Bali blasts faded due to swift progress made in capturing the alleged Bali bombers.

But the months leading up to the U.S.-led war in Iraq sparked concerns of a violent backlash from protesting groups here.

Various radical groups threatened to attack U.S. interests as anti-American sentiment spread across the country and among groups of various backgrounds.

The government has since stepped up security at embassies and other foreign interests. Warnings of violent protests quickly fizzled, even after the war broke out and continued for three weeks.

U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Ralph L. Boyce voiced his relief about the peaceful antiwar protests, noting that they had been driven by humanitarian concerns rather than religious zeal.

"I don't think it's so much about religion this time as perhaps the Afghanistan demonstrations were a year and a half ago," he said, referring to the antiwar protests in 2001 when the U.S. led a coalition into Afghanistan to topple the Taliban regime and the al-Qaeda terrorist group.

"This time I sense that the largest organizations on the Islamic front recognized early on that this was not about religion," he said.

He said the Iraqi issue had even helped "broaden and mature the relationship on both sides".

He said the Iraq war was an emotionally loaded issue where the U.S. and Indonesia fundamentally differ "and yet we respect the possibility and can live with it without putting into jeopardy all the many other important aspects of the bilateral relationship".