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Security worsening in hard-hit province, Indonesia's military warns

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia—Political insecurity and the threat of violence are creating problems for relief workers in tsunami-ravaged Indonesia amid signs that the government's truce with a rebel group is falling apart.

Indonesia's armed forces warned Monday that security is deteriorating in disaster-stricken Aceh province, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, and asked foreign humanitarian groups to register with the military and notify authorities when traveling outside Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

Providing scant details, an armed forces spokesman said soldiers had clashed with guerrillas fighting for independence of energy-rich Aceh (pronounced AH-chay) and that rebels were stirring up trouble at refugee camps.

The warning came a week after fierce fighting between government forces and insurgents from the Free Aceh Movement blocked a relief convoy for eight hours.

"We're a little concerned about the security situation, particularly in Sumatra, in the Aceh area," Andrew Natsios, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, told reporters in Washington. "This is the most fundamentalist area in all of Indonesia, and it's been a hotbed for a long time now."

Islamic militants have been fighting to establish an independent Islamic state in Sumatra since the mid-1970s. The government and the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian initials GAM, signed a peace agreement in late 2002, but never really established peace.

Both sides put aside the conflict, at least temporarily, after a Dec. 26 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra sent massive waves that swept hundreds of Indonesian villages into the sea. More than 100,000 Indonesians died; many thousands more are missing.

A senior Indonesian official said 1,556 of Aceh province's 5,862 villages "were wiped out" and added that the loss of life among local police officers, teachers and town and village officials had been huge.

"You can imagine the devastation and impact on local governments," said Alwi Shihab, the coordinating minister of people's welfare and a senior aide to the president. Of 400 police officers in the coastal city of Meulaboh, he said, "only 20 remain" alive.

Shihab said rescuers are still finding and burying hundreds—and sometimes thousands— of bodies a day. After collecting and burying 2,500 bodies Sunday, workers have now buried 58,281 bodies. The government believes 50,000 more people are still waiting to be buried.

Despite the security concerns, President Bush used a visit to USAID headquarters Monday to underscore America's commitment to the tsunami-relief effort.

"This is one of those projects that's not going to happen overnight," Bush told government aid workers and top officials from two dozen private relief organizations. "Our commitment is a long-term commitment."

Bush also urged Americans to make certain their donations to tsunami relief are in addition to their usual charitable giving. Humanitarian groups worry that the outpouring of aid for tsunami victims could hurt donations to other charities.

"It is essential that your contribution not replace the ongoing contributions you're making. ... You should view the tsunami relief effort as extra help," Bush said.

Bush visited USAID after a morning briefing from Natsios and Secretary of State Colin Powell on their recent trip, along with Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, to tsunami-damaged countries. Natsios told reporters that many tsunami victims are in a daze.

"Many of the people have lost most of their extended families, their neighborhoods, all their friends," he said. "People are going into shock, some of them, psychologically. You can't see it from a distance, but when you talk to them you realize that they're not entirely aware of what's happening to them, their psychological state is such."

Reliable information about the security situation is hard to come by in the swirl of rumors sweeping through Banda Aceh.

At a news conference, armed forces spokesman Col. Yani Basuki said rebels had tried to intercept relief shipments and had mixed with displaced people in refugee camps, sometimes disguising themselves in military uniforms.

But he declined to provide details about a shootout that he said had taken place between rebels and soldiers. "They fired the first shot," he said. He added that soldiers captured seven GAM members, but not in direct combat.

Some aid workers viewed the security warnings skeptically, suggesting they stemmed from the Indonesian military's concerns about the presence of foreigners in an area that had been off-limits to outsiders until the earthquake and tsunami.

Under military emergency powers, the armed forces have had nearly a free hand to seek the group's extermination. The U.S. State Department and other outside groups have repeatedly protested human rights violations by the military in the troubled region. The rebels are believed to number between 800 and 2,000.

But some United Nations relief officials said they were impressed that the country was allowing so many foreign relief workers into the region.

"They've been extremely open. It's amazing, compared to where we were three weeks ago. This area was a zone of conflict," said Joel Boutroue, the U.N. coordinator for Aceh relief efforts.

In a rather sudden fashion, Indonesian military officials began suggesting late Sunday that foreigners would need military escorts "for their own safety" around Aceh. Two Indonesian soldiers arrived at a private home occupied by Knight Ridder journalists and said the journalists would have to report all movements to local commanders.

Higher ranking officers said Monday that escorts were optional within the area of Banda Aceh, but that insurgents had roiled the region.

Despite security concerns, U.S. officials said there was no evidence of any foul play in the Monday morning crash of a Seahawk helicopter. The helicopter, arriving in Banda Aceh from the USS Abraham Lincoln, crashed in a rice paddy near the airport, injuring 10 Navy crewmen. The crash disrupted activity at the airport for about an hour.

"There is absolutely no indication that a hostile act caused the aircraft to crash," Lt. Cmdr. John Bernard said.

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(Johnson reported from Banda Aceh, Hutcheson from Washington.)

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

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

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050110 tsunami hospital

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