Sat, Jan 08, 2005 - Page 1 News List

Militant Islamists spook aid workers


UN and Indonesian officials yesterday said they would not scale back cooperation with the US military on tsunami-stricken Sumatra island, despite terror fears raised by the presence of an extremist Islamic group with alleged al-Qaeda links, and reports that one major aid agency said its staff had been ordered not to fly in US helicopters.

The Laskar Mujahidin set up a camp in Aceh province and posted a sign that read -- in English -- "Islamic Law Enforcement." Its members said they have been collecting corpses, distributing food and providing Islamic teaching for refugees.

The presence of the extremist group, accused of involvement in Christian-Muslim fighting elsewhere in Indonesia, has generated fears that US military personnel and others doing relief work could become terror targets.

It also underscores the fine line that foreigners must tread between being welcomed as Samaritans or viewed as invaders in a country where suspicion of outsiders runs deep.

US, Australian and South Korean government officials said they were aware of security threats in the region and were taking precautions.

But UN officials in Aceh said they would not scale back their cooperation with the US military, which is ferrying aid around the stricken province.

"This is a situation where everyone is pulling together to help the people who have been affected by this disaster," said Michael Elmquist, the UN official in charge of operations on Sumatra. "We need all the assistance we can get."

Alan Vernon, from the UN High Commission for Refugees, agreed, saying there was no need to keep US forces at arm's length.

"They have logistical assets we want to be able to take advantage of," he said.

Analysts said Islamic terrorists known to operate in Indonesia would be foolish to try to attack anyone helping the hundreds of thousands of tsunami victims, because it could result in aid groups pulling out and sour the militants' chances of building support.

Indonesian military spokesman Ahmad Yani Basukim said the Laskar Mujahidin group was not seen as a threat in Aceh.

A US official in Aceh said US forces were aware of the group.

"You've got to be on your toes," the official said. "We're watching them. Something can happen."

But Lieutenant Commander John Daniel, a spokesman for the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier battle group, said chopper crews were not taking special security precautions.

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