Scores of people trying to leave the capital of Indonesia's embattled Aceh province piled into mini-vans yesterday, joining trucks picking up supplies under the protection of well-armed troops.
The convoy included about a dozen mini-vans crammed with passengers and about 13 empty trucks heading south to the city of Medan, hoping to bring supplies back to Aceh where shortages have led to rocketing prices.
Indonesian forces launched an offensive against separatist fighters in the remote province on Sumatra island a week ago. Authorities said the disruption of transport and food supplies as a result of rebel attacks on the roads had to stop.
"These shortages simply cannot be allowed to continue," said Aceh governor Abdullah Puteh who saw the convoy off from Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.
The vans usually ply the route to and from Medan, capital of North Sumatra province, and were expected to drop off and pick up passengers along the way.
Scores of people have been killed since the government declared martial law and launched an offensive against Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels after the collapse of a five-month peace deal.
About 10,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in decades of fighting in the resource-rich, staunchly Muslim province.
An Indonesian Red Cross official said yesterday it had removed 82 bodies from conflict areas since the latest round of fighting flared.
The military said it had killed 68 rebels while two government soldiers and five civilians had been killed.
Rebel sources say scores of civilians and hundreds of government soldiers have been killed.
Confirmation of the various claims is not possible but correspondents in Aceh say they do not know of any evidence that would support GAM's count of government dead. Government commanders dismiss the rebel figures.
About 45,000 members of the security forces are trying to defeat about 5,000 rebels who have adopted hit-and-run tactics. Previous campaigns have failed.
There were reports of several small clashes over the weekend.
The fighting has forced as many as 23,000 people from their homes and the UN has warned of collapsing health services and a looming humanitarian crisis.
Escorting the convoy south yesterday morning were an armored personnel carrier, an armored car mounted with machine guns and manned by soldiers and an armoured police truck.
The convoy was guarded by about 80 members of the security forces, wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests and clutching automatic rifles.
Because of rebel attacks and the burning of some vehicles on the province's roads, many drivers have been refusing to move out of Banda Aceh and other Aceh towns without a military escort.
Cut Musriani, a woman in her '50s crammed into a van with 11 members of her family, said: "I'm still a little scared but I have to leave because we all want to go home."
Musriani, wearing a brightly colored Muslim scarf, was headed for her home close to the Aceh border with North Sumatra.
The Aceh governor said convoys would travel to Medan twice a week and would continue as long as necessary. Another official said 23 trucks carrying supplies had left Medan for Banda Aceh.