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Indonesia's rebels will resume fight, local commander says

LAMNO, Indonesia—Last month's tsunami swept away Indonesian rebel staging areas for attacks on government forces, but the rebels had few casualties and will resume fighting for the independence of Aceh province, a local rebel commander said Friday.

The interview with the commander, who declined to give his name but whose men said he led four regiments totaling 720 men, was the first inside view of how the tsunami has affected communities controlled by Free Aceh Movement guerrillas, who have waged a three-decade-long war on Indonesia's central government.

The commander asked that the name of the village where he was interviewed not be revealed, for fear of military retaliation.

The village, which was undamaged by the tsunami, is one of more than 30 near Lamno, where the Indonesian government has established a relief center. The rebels in the village are providing food to about 60 refugees who have sought shelter there. The military "doesn't want to give food aid here because this is a rebel base," the commander said.

Most rebel fighters survived the onslaught, the commander said, because their redoubts are largely inland. But the rebels, including the commander, lost family members who lived along the coast. The commander said both his parents perished.

The rebels declared a cease-fire after the tsunami, and many came down from their hiding places to help find the dead and bury them. But the commander and his subordinates offered no hope that the cease-fire would lead to long-term peace, though they didn't say when or under what conditions fighting would resume.

"This disaster is irrelevant to the political situation in Aceh," said one of the commander's subordinates, a regimental officer who leads 160 men.

The commander said secret port facilities that were lost when the tsunami swept a seaside village away would be replaced. "We lost lots of bases and secret ports," he said, "but we believe we can build new ones."

Indonesian officials have cited the rebels as the primary reason for requiring foreign aid workers to get government permission before traveling outside the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, or Meulaboh, another devastated Aceh city.

But the rebels encountered Friday made no effort to challenge a reporter and photographer who entered the village unannounced, and the commander dismissed as "propaganda" government suggestions that the rebels were a threat to aid workers.

An Indonesian army officer in Lamno said later that the rebels hadn't disrupted relief operations in the area.

"The separatist movement doesn't impact our relief effort," said 1st Lt. Ramli Saragih, who is in charge of Lamno and the surrounding area. "They don't hinder us from doing our relief operations. Everything we plan runs smoothly and is under control."

Saragih said the military wasn't keeping food from the refugees—a charge made not only by the rebel commander but also by refugees in Lamno. The military guards the aid in warehouses, he said, but local civilian officials are responsible for distributing it through eight centers.

The tiny village, approached down a dirt path through a wide expanse of scraggly rice and vegetable fields, looks like any other in poor, rural Indonesia: a small cluster of ramshackle wooden houses built around a concrete building that is the town center. About 200 people live there.

At first, the rebels there were hard to pick out. But it soon became apparent that a small group of young men—wearing jeans and T-shirts, with rifles slung over their shoulders—wasn't a gathering of local rice tillers.

None of the rebels would give his name.

The commander was barefoot and sat cross-legged with a few of his men on a raised wooden platform under a corrugated metal roof, an AK-47 rifle resting on his lap.

The tsunami stopped about a mile from the village. In the days afterward, refugees from the coast made their way inland, some stopping for assistance, but most continuing to Lamno, where the military is helping to bring in food and medical supplies and where refugees receive a cup of uncooked rice a day and instant soup noodles.

The diet is short on protein but more than those who stayed in the rebel-held village seemed to be getting.

"We do the best we can," one of the rebel commander's subordinates said. People in other undamaged villages nearby donated the food, the commander said.

Still, some families think they're better off in the village than in Lamno. Many Achenese remain wary of the military, whose presence often had been unwelcome in the area as it sought to quash the rebel movement.

"I want to stay here," said Cut Maneh, 40, who said she heard that Indonesian troops were hoarding rice instead of giving it to refugees. "There is no food in Lamno. Even if there is some, only certain people get it."

No relief workers have been seen in the village, and none is expected. The commander said that both the military and the rebels had suffered in the tsunami. But he said that right now, the rebels were focused on making sure that the tsunami's victims received the help they needed.

"Both sides lost quite a number of assets," he said. "We lost (staging) areas, and the military lost office buildings. But the main victims were the people."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): TSUNAMI-REBELS

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20041231 TSUNAMI Aceh

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