Sun, May 25, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Food crisis looms in troubled Aceh region

DAILY CLASHES Troops and rebels skirmish regularly along the main roads where trucks carrying food are being escorted by soldiers to prevent them being looted


Soldiers guarded trucks carrying fuel and other staples into Indonesia's Aceh province yesterday as the military warned that food supplies were running out in parts of the region.

Prices of staple goods and gasoline have doubled in some areas because of the dangers of traveling around the province since Jakarta launched an offensive on Monday to crush a 27-year-year-long separatist rebellion.

On Thursday, the UN Children's Fund warned of a "grave humanitarian crisis" in the province, saying that basic health services had collapsed along with programs for assisting poor families and their children.

Troops yesterday were deployed on the main roads in and out of the province, said Lieutenant Colonel Firdaus Komarno, a military spokesman. Soldiers were also escorting trucks carrying rice, other staples and gasoline.

"People are running out of food fast in the areas where we suspect rebels are lurking ready to ambush or burn the vehicles," Komarno said.

Troops and rebels have clashed daily since the campaign started. According to military figures, 58 guerillas have been killed so far, while rebels say 12 of their fighters have died, along with 53 civilians.

Independent verification is impossible as international monitors have left the area. Both sides also routinely misreport casualties figures.

Truck driver Herman said he had not worked for 10 days.

"We are too scared to work. This can't go on for much longer," he said in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. "We need help."

The offensive was launched in the oil and gas-rich province after talks in Tokyo to salvage a Dec. 9 ceasefire failed when rebels refused to give up their independence bid.

More than 30,000 government troops are up against some 5,000 poorly armed rebels, most of whom are believed to have either retreated to the hills or are hiding among the civilian population.

Meanwhile, Indonesia said yesterday civilians in Aceh would be given new ID cards to stop rebels blending in with the population.

A military spokesman predicted the plan would help restore normality to parts of the province.

"The ID card will have signatures from the local region, the local police and the local military," a military spokesman, Major M. Solih, said. "This is for the sake of the people to normalize the situation in parts of Aceh."

Police say rebels have been confiscating people's old identification cards, but it was not clear when the new cards would be introduced.

Aceh's deputy governor, Aswar Abubakar, said on Friday 23,000 people had been displaced since Monday.

The UN Children's Fund said up to 300,000 people could be displaced within the next three months.

Basic health services had "collapsed" and more than 280 schools have been burnt and destroyed, depriving 60,000 children of education, the agency said in a statement issued in Geneva.

UNICEF said it was sending 20 tonnes of emergency health kits to cover the basic needs of 200,000 people for three months and 20,000 hygiene kits for displaced families.

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