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Indonesia backs off rebel claims

Associated Press - January 10, 2005

The Indonesian government said that separatist rebels were not infiltrating refugee camps in tsunami-hit Aceh province and were not responsible for a shooting near the main UN compound, contradicting assertions a day earlier by the country's military and police.

A top official also said the government and rebels were negotiating indirectly through a group of religious scholars in hopes of securing a lasting peace in a region that has been wracked by conflict for years.

The police and military's claims about the rebels Indonesia's army has been fighting for decades heightened worries for the security of the massive aid operation under way in northern Sumatra island, where more than 104,000 people died in the December 26 disaster.

But Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab, who is heading the country's relief effort, said a troubled Indonesian soldier, not a rebel gunman, was responsible for a burst of gunfire close to the main UN compound in the provincial capital Banda Aceh on Sunday. The soldier was in custody, Shihab said.

"I have a report from the [military] that a soldier was in a stressful condition and opened fire," Shihab said. "GAM [the rebel group] was not involved in this." The military had not said previously who it believed was responsible for the shooting, but police blamed the rebels.

Shihab also dismissed the military claim that rebels had infiltrated refugee camps, reported on Sunday by the Antara state news agency. "Banda Aceh is full of rumours these days," Shihab said. The military gave no details of the alleged infiltrations.

The Free Aceh rebels, known by the Indonesian acronym GAM, have been fighting a low-level war against Indonesian troops for an independent homeland in Aceh for more than 20 years. Indonesian forces are accused of brutality in the region and are widely despised. Officials regularly blame the rebels for shootings and violence in Aceh, even if there is little evidence of their involvement.

GAM declared a unilateral ceasefire in Aceh after a huge 9.0 magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit the province, and the military said it would not target suspected rebels during the emergency. However, there have been reports of clashes in recent days. The United Nations has said it does not believe aid workers were targeted in the shooting early on Sunday, in which no one was injured.

Shihab said the government was doing everything it could to secure the safety of the many foreigners in the region to help the disaster victims. "There is no need for extra precautions," he said. "Security is under control." He said the government was communicating indirectly with the rebels through a group of Muslim religious leaders and scholars.

"We do hope they will join efforts with us to rebuild Aceh," Shihab said. "The GAM side will not be easy to convince. I hope [the intermediaries] will be able to convince them." The religious leaders, Shihab said, are "trying to convince [the rebels] Aceh should be peaceful and prosperous." Shihab said other reports of violence around the province, previously blamed on rebels, were also the result of Indonesian soldiers cracking under pressure.