Wed, Dec 29, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Indonesia's Aceh province a graveyard

DEVASTATION The embattled Indonesian province was littered with bloated bodies as soldiers and volunteers continued their wary search for survivors


Acehnese people look of hundreds victim body in Banda Aceh, western Indonesia Monday. Dozens of bloated bodies littered the streets of Banda Aceh as soldiers and volunteers searched for survivors after tidal waves killed at least 4,991 in Indonesia, officials said.


The oil-rich Indonesian province of Aceh was one of the few places hit by both southern Asia's massive earthquake and the tsunamis it caused -- a double blow that killed thousands and wreaked so much devastation that separatists fighting a decades-long insurgency called a temporary ceasefire.

Streets in the province's capital, Banda Aceh -- about 240km from the quake's epicenter -- were filled with bloated corpses, dead cows and animals and overturned cars. The city's only shopping mall was reduced to a pile of rubble, the minaret of the city's 150-year-old mosque leaned precariously, and thousands of homeless families huddled together in mosques and schools.

Remote coastal villages were washed away in the province, the home of 3,000 of Indonesia's 5,000 confirmed dead. Officials feared that once the devastation from Aceh was fully known, the country's death toll could reach 10,000.

It was a stunning tragedy for the territory at the northern tip of Sumatra island that supplies around 30 percent of Indonesia's oil production and has been torn for years by conflict between separatist rebels and government forces.

The Free Aceh Movement's announcement Monday that it would abide by a ceasefire so that relief agencies could safely deliver supplies into the province. "We will not be on the offensive, but we will be on the defensive," said Baktiar Abdullah, a guerrilla spokesman.

About half the 10,000 troops deployed in the province to fight the insurgency were shifted to the relief effort, the government said. During a visit to Banda Aceh, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called on both sides in the conflict to unite.

"To my brothers who still hold weapons, please come together and unite to redevelop our beloved Aceh," Yudhoyono told reporters.

The government also eased a ban on foreigners traveling to Aceh, allowing foreign reporters to travel freely through the war-torn province and international relief agencies to fly in medicines, food and other basic necessities.

"The government has requested international assistance which it hasn't done since I've been here," said Michael Elmquist, who has headed the UN's Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jakarta the past four years.

"The indication is that there shouldn't be a problem," he said. "We've been told that the vice president has instructed the air force to facilitate the arrival of foreign assistance upon arrival. They will allow flights from abroad to land in Banda Aceh without any problems."

Guerrillas have been fighting since 1976 for an independent homeland in Aceh. At least 13,000 people have been killed since then, including 2,300 since Jakarta launched its latest military offensive in early last year. Since May this year, the government eased up on martial law and Yudhoyono has been calling for peace there -- offering amnesty and promising economic development. But there has been no movement toward new peace negotiations, and several dozen are still killed every week in clashes.

The local subsidiary of US petroleum giant Exxon Mobil Corp suffered a temporary "minor disruption" in its natural gas liquefaction operations from Sunday's disaster, a company spokesman said. Indonesia, the only Asian member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, is the world's largest liquefied natural gas exporter.

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