Fri, Jan 21, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Aceh gunfire part of ongoing civil war

ADDED DANGER Gunfire heard in the hills near Banda Aceh sends tsunami refugees diving for cover and underscores the risk of renewed fighting in the region

AP , JAKARTA

Acehnese rush as a US helicopter delivers water and food at their village in Lam No district yesterday. Many survivors in tsunami-devastated Aceh are still out of reach of humanitarian assistance, although international and domestic aid continues to pour into the area, a senior UN official says. Indonesia was the hardest hit country by the tsunami, with an estimated 387,000 people left homeless in the devastated province of Aceh.

PHOTO: EPA

Gunfire that rang out yesterday near a camp for tsunami refugees reminded Indonesians of a civil war that's been on hold since walls of water killed up to 220,000 people last month, while a UN official praised global relief efforts so far as the most effective ever.

The US, meanwhile, planned to scale down its military relief operations in Indonesia's tsunami-ravaged Aceh Province by the end of February. UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland said the world's quick response to the catastrophe had dramatically shortened the emergency phase of aid efforts.

The Dec. 26 tsunami ransacked coastlines across 11 countries in southern Asia and as far as eastern Africa, killing as many as 220,000 people -- though numbers have varied sharply. A huge earthquake spawned the massive waves off the coast of Aceh Province, worst hit by the disaster.

As gunfire sounded yesterday in the hills near the provincial capital Banda Aceh, homeless tsunami survivors in a temporary camp housing 200 people screamed and dove for cover.

Aceh rebels and the Indonesian army have declared an informal cease-fire to help the humanitarian effort, but there have been sporadic reports of fighting.

No one was injured and the gunfire did not appear to target the refugees, but it underscored the danger of renewed fighting in a region where separatist rebels and government forces have fought for nearly three decades.

"I cannot imagine a more terrible nightmare," said Revita, a 28-year-old midwife who recently gave birth to her second child, said after the shooting.

At least three bursts of gunfire were heard. The Indonesian military had no immediate comment.

Revita said that despite the shooting she had no plans to flee the camp.

"I cannot leave them, I have to stay here and help, there are so many pregnant women," she said. Like most Indonesians, she uses one name.

Aid has poured into affected countries in an unprecedented global relief effort, and the UN praised the world's response even as it cautioned that longer-term reconstruction assistance would be needed as well.

"Usually we say the emergency phase is from three to six months. In this case, it will be much shorter. It may be only two months in nearly all places other than Aceh," said UN humanitarian chief Jan Egeland.

"Why is it so quick? It's been the most effective response ever," he said, in an interview at a disaster conference in Kobe, Japan.

"In this case, relief work started on the first day," he said. "Heads of states to average citizens felt: not only should I help but my help will lead to something. And that's why we have not only a huge public investment we have an equally big private one."

Still, three weeks after the disaster, aid workers continued the grim task of counting the dead.

Indonesia's health ministry upped its death toll by more than 70,000 to a new total of 166,320, though its count differed sharply from other Indonesian government tallies, with the Social Affairs Ministry putting its figure at 114,978 dead.

Officials have frequently cautioned that compiling accurate figures for those killed in the disaster is almost impossible. Sri Lanka also struggled with conflicting numbers.

Meanwhile, stretched medical teams in Aceh were trying to prevent outbreaks of measles, malaria, diarrhea and other diseases.

They are "straining to stay ahead of a wide range of threats to a severely weakened, still disoriented and beleaguered population," said Bob Dietz, the World Health Organization spokesman in Banda Aceh. "I still sense a precarious situation."

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