Indonesia insists on restricting relief workers in tsunami-hit Aceh

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Banda Aceh, Indonesia (dpa) - Indonesian government authorities reiterated on Wednesday that foreign relief workers in tsunami-devastated Aceh province were not permitted to travel to areas considered dangerous by the military.

All foreigners are required to register and give details of their proposed activities to the military in the provincial capital Banda Aceh before being allowed to visit so-called "black or grey areas'', due to security concerns, Budi Atmaji, operational chief of Aceh disaster relief, told journalists.

Foreign aid workers may have to wait hours or possibly days, to hear about their applications to work in areas considered "still dangerous'' by Indonesian military authorities, Atmaji said.

The move has been criticized by some relief workers who said the move would delay much needed aid getting to more remote areas of the devastated province.

Before any foreign relief workers are allowed into areas outside the two main provincial towns, the Indonesian military must first declare the area secure, he said.

The military has claimed aid convoys have been looted by separatist rebels and that a medical worker had been kidnapped. The allegations have not been independently verified.

One large United Nations group said in a statement Wednesday it had not been the target of any action by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). "Since the December 26 earthquake and tsunami, the World Food Programme has had no direct security incidents in Aceh, neither attacks nor looting of World Food Programme food,'' the U.N. statement said.

Atmaji denied that the new regulation was a effort to control the movement of foreign workers. "The purpose is not to restrict access but coordinate the activity of all organizations to prevent overlap,'' Atmaji said. "The measure is to ensure the effectiveness of all organizations in the region.''

Before the devastating tsunami hit, Aceh had been closed to foreign aid workers and journalists, after the Indonesian government declared a state of martial law in the restive area in May 2003.

In Banda Aceh on Wednesday, Alwi Shihab, coordinating minister for people's welfare, warned of the risk of kidnapping of foreign relief workers by separatist guerillas, despite a GAM statement Tuesday stating that this was not on their agenda.

"If one person from the international community is kidnapped by GAM I'm sure it would harm the mission,'' Shihab told reporters. "This is a reason we need to prevent an occurrence from GAM.''

Shihab indicated that government authorities would not arrest foreign aid workers who insisted on going to restricted areas in the devastated and troubled province. "No. We will try to communicate in good fashion. We're still of civilized people and will act in good fashion,'' Shihab, who has been tasked by Indonesia's president to coordinate the governments response to the disaster.

Shihab said GAM rebels had kidnapped an aid worker in the Aceh's Besar district but the man had been rescued by Indonesian troops. No independent verification of the alleged kidnapping has appeared, but Shihab told journalists he would give further details later.

The announcement on tighter restrictions was not well received, with one aid worker insisting that he would deliver relief to the areas controlled by GAM, with or without government approval. "We will send it regardless of GAM or not,'' the unidentified aid worker said.

GAM has been fighting for an independent state in Aceh, the predominantly Moslem province on the northern end of Sumatra, since 1976. More than 12,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed since the beginning of the rebellion.

Humanitarian efforts supercede the previously existing state of martial law, Shihab insisted. "The humanitarian mission is a top priority. What is stipulated in the civil emergency is suspended for a while, but that doesn't mean it is suspended forever,'' he added.

To date, 70,157 bodies have been collected from the devastated province and an additional 500 personnel have been sent from Jakarta to speed up corpse recover, Shihab said.

In response to concerns by foreign governments that Islamic radical groups were involved in relief activities in the devastated province, Shihab said all people are welcomed to join the effort. "I'm not concerned about ideological background,'' he said. "Whoever wants to help we welcome.'' dpa eu sh st blg

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