Subject: AP: U.S. Seeks Military Ties With Indonesia

Also: Indonesia, Rebels Continue Clashes

Back Published Thursday, February 3, 2005 U.S. Seeks Military Ties With Indonesia

By CHRIS BRUMMITT Associated Press Writer

ABOARD THE USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Indonesia The United States wants to boost military ties with the Indonesian military on the back of the two countries' close cooperation in helping victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami, America's ambassador to Indonesia said Thursday.

The United States cut off ties with the Indonesian military in 1999 because of human rights concerns. The Bush administration, however, is keen to see the restrictions lifted, partly because of fears that al-Qaida may launch attacks from Indonesia, which has seen a string of deadly bombings in recent years.

The U.S. military was the first foreign army to arrive in Indonesia to join the tsunami relief efforts. Its helicopters have ferried tons of food and water to the survivors.

Ambassador B. Lynn Pascoe praised the two militaries' cooperation.

"We look forward to having much better relations with the military in the weeks and months to come, and we will certainly be working on that with them," he told reporters.

Pascoe declined to say whether he would recommend that the U.S. Congress lift the ban.

The USS Abraham Lincoln, meanwhile, was departing from Indonesia's tsunami-battered Sumatra island in the single biggest withdrawal of the American military aid effort since the Dec. 26 disaster.

The aircraft carrier, with 5,300 sailors and Marines aboard, "is moving out of Indonesian waters," said U.S. Navy spokesman Cmdr. Mark McDonald. The ship is expected to head for Singapore.

In a visit to Indonesia last month, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said closer contact with the U.S. military would strengthen the Indonesian military's commitment to human rights and allow it to better respond to natural disasters.

Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, is a key proponent of improved ties between the two countries. Critics say he is turning a blind eye to massive human rights abuses by the Indonesian military.

Congress has so far blocked moves to reopen ties, which were severed in 1999 when Indonesian soldiers and militia proxies took part in bloody rampage that killed hundreds of people in East Timor following its vote for independence.

U.S. lawmakers maintain that the military has not improved its human rights record since then.

Suspected military involvement in the murder of two American teachers at a U.S.-owned gold mine in the remote province of Papua in 2002 has also complicated moves to restore links.

Indonesia has long called for the ban to be lifted so it can buy new U.S. military equipment and take part in American training programs.

Indonesian military chief Gen. Endriatono Sutarto, who also attended Thursday's ceremony, said he hoped the tsunami cooperation would "pave the way for a wider range of cooperation between the two armed forces."

Alwi Shihab, the government minister in charge of the tsunami relief effort, said he expected more "fruitful" ties with both the Bush administration and Congress in the coming months.

--

Newsday [Long Island, NY] February 3, 2005

Indonesia, Rebels Continue Clashes

Skirmishes hamper tsunami relief efforts, pose a risk to survivors and aid workers, and dim the chances for upcoming peace talks.

BY LETTA TAYLER STAFF CORRESPONDENT

BUKIT BARISAN MOUNTAIN RANGE, Indonesia -- The armed rebels huddled in the drizzle in their remote mountain hideout, a cluster of bamboo platforms and tattered tarps in a mosquito-infested jungle.

Under a makeshift canopy, two fighters who had been ambushed by the Indonesian army a few days earlier fretted that they had no fresh bandages for their gunshot wounds.

Did the visitors bring the cigarettes, asked Muharram, the rebels' camouflage-clad commander, explaining that supplies were scarce since the army had pushed his men deep into the interior. What about the antibiotics for the wounded fighters? And might he have the reporter's flashlight when she left?

Despite pledges from the Indonesian army and separatist rebels to halt their protracted guerrilla war during tsunami recovery efforts, the military is clashing with the guerrillas almost daily in Aceh Province, ground zero of the Dec. 26 disaster.

The skirmishes are posing a risk to tsunami survivors and to scores of international relief groups operating in western Aceh. They also have dimmed prospects for upcoming peace talks to end three decades of conflict.

Indonesian authorities contend they are striking the rebels in self-defense. They paint the separatists as a threat to relief operations, saying they are stealing humanitarian food handouts and could kill or kidnap aid workers. But in a rare interview at his mountain camp, Muharram, who like many Acehnese uses one name, blamed the Indonesian armed forces, saying they are capitalizing on the chaos that followed the tsunami to rout the rebels and terrorize civilians so they won't back the separatists. "It's the Indonesian military that won't stop its attacks," said Muharram, a wiry, muscular man of 30 whose fatigues were emblazoned with the star-and-crescent flag of Aceh. He also said the military, not the rebels, was stealing relief supplies.

"We welcome the international workers that have come here to aid the tsunami victims," Muharram said as he sat cross-legged on a tarp in his hideaway, guarded by two dozen armed men. "Please tell them, do not leave until the misery is over."

The army claims to have killed more than 200 rebels in skirmishes since the tsunami -- nearly double the toll in months preceding the disaster -- but most of those dead are civilians, according to Muharram, northwestern provincial commander for the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Acehnese acronymn, GAM.

Military officials deny any wrongdoing. "Our focus right now is humanitarian aid. We're here to protect the people, not hurt them," armed forces spokesman Ahmad Yani Basuki said on Sunday in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. The only reason for the high death toll, he said, is that "we'll fire back when we're fired on." He said any civilians killed were GAM agents.

But many villagers in the skirmish areas sided with the rebels' version of events, and the army's credibility has been tarnished by a history of corruption, brutality and plunder.

Representatives of several international relief groups said they hadn't encountered major problems with either side, but were concerned the violence could jeopardize relief efforts.

The tsunami killed at least 100,000 people and left 130,000 missing along the western coast of Aceh. It forced the government to open the province to foreign relief workers and journalists for the first time since May 2003, when the army launched a failed blitz to crush the separatists.

But hearing the rebels' side of the story remains difficult. Aceh is crawling with Indonesian troops and the military has ordered foreign aid workers and journalists to report all their movements, ostensibly to protect them from the rebel.

It took several aborted attempts and a grueling, 3 ½-hour, nighttime trek through the jungle last week to reach Muharram and his men, who received their visitors with smiles. The route cut through swaths of tsunami-devastated coast, past rotting, bug-infested corpses, over mounds of debris, through stinking puddles and into thorny brush. The final leg was so steep and slippery that ascending required a crawl through the mud. Kalashnikov-wielding guides led the way, one of them a skinny young man wearing a tight black T-shirt emblazoned with the word "peace."

With many couriers and traditional supply routes wiped out by the tsunami, the rebels were clearly hurting. Some even lacked boots. They also were under emotional siege -- all lost relatives or friends and some risked death to sneak into shelters and villages to visit loved ones or bring food and medicine to survivors.

Nevertheless, the GAM insisted they haven't lost their will to battle for secession from Indonesia -- a struggle that has claimed 11,000 lives since 1976."If there is no peaceful solution, we'll continue to fight," vowed Muharram, his cell phone in one hand and his Kalashnikov in the other. He spoke as the Indonesian government and GAM's overseas representatives opened preliminary peace talks in Finland. There may be a second round.

Muharram, who commands about 1,000 fighters, said the rebels welcome U.S. troops, who are delivering relief to remote areas. But he gently rapped the U.S. government, along with Britain and Australia, for not pressuring Indonesia more forcefully toward negotiations. "Why does the United States remain silent about our misery?" he asked.

The rebels want to turn Aceh into a democratic monarchy "similar to Britain," Muharram said. A former sultanate, Aceh has been ruled by outsiders since the Dutch colonized it in the 1870s. Since Indonesia's independence in 1950, the national government has exploited the province's abundant gas and oil reserves, while the army has murdered, raped and tortured at will, according to international observers including Human Rights Watch.

Flipping through a notebook, Muharram read a list of what he described as the latest army assaults on GAM and civilians in violation of the temporary cease-fire. They included killings, maiming, kidnappings and razing of homes.

The army has confirmed it killed seven men in early January in the village of Lhamlhom, just south of Banda Aceh. It said they were GAM; the rebels insist the men were civilians. Asked about the incident on a recent day, several villagers signaled they couldn't talk, pointing nervously to troops patrolling nearby. "It's too dangerous," one man whispered.

Civilians were more forthcoming in a camp for tsunami survivors in the township of Lamreh, a 45-minute drive east of Banda Aceh, where soldiers shot dead a 17-year-old student nearly two weeks ago.

The student, Dodi, had gone up the mountain with his girlfriend, who saw the troops shoot him without provocation when he accidentally came upon a rebel eating lunch, say friends and relatives.

"He survived the tsunami but not the army," said Dodi's father, Husni Aswin, his face twisted in disbelief. Dodi had wanted to join the military, his father and friends said.

The day Dodi was killed, a group of soldiers also marched into a shelter for tsunami survivors in nearby Ujung Lanchang, lined up the 30 camp residents and began shouting, "Where are the GAM?" according to people who had been rounded up.

When the tsunami survivors replied that they didn't know, they said, the troops separated the women and made them strip to their underwear, an act of deep humiliation in Islamic society, whether ordered by Muslims or non-Muslims. The soldiers also made the men strip to their underwear and lie on the ground, where they beat them and fired guns near their heads, some of the men said. They said the troops took three men for questioning at a nearby military base, and only two returned.

International human rights groups say GAM has committed its own share of kidnappings and extortion, though at a far lower level. Muharram said the group is no longer involved in such activities.

Indonesia experts say grinding poverty and a lack of services for the 4 million people in this oil-rich province contribute to GAM's widespread support. Even in Banda Aceh, with its concentration of government and military posts, young men furtively show off rebel paraphernalia. "The army would slit my throat if it saw this," one youth said as he proudly flashed a cell phone screen showing a GAM flag.

As they hung clothes from ropes stretched across a clearing and placed crimson chili peppers to dry in the scorching sun that followed the tropical rains, rebels in the mountain hide-out described the farming and fishing villages they had left behind as filled with hopelessness and terror even before the tsunami.

"The army has murdered and raped. It shot my father's cousin in front of his eyes. I want to take revenge," said Jaka, a baby-faced 20-year-old who was shot four times in the stomach and torso in last week's ambush.

Since then, Jaka has been weak and dizzy. Blood was seeping through the patches on his wounds.

But he still has his AK-56 assault rifle.

"I'll keep fighting," Jaka vowed. "Until I've shed my last drop of blood."


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