South Asia tsunami information   |   Information on Aceh

We'll stay: Australian PM locks in aid army

10 January 2005

The Prime Minister last night signalled a long involvement by Australia's military and aid teams in the devastated Indonesian province of Aceh.

In his address to the nation on Australia's response to the tsunami catastrophe, John Howard said Australia was the first foreign country to have aid teams in Aceh. Alongside other countries, it was now playing a leading role in one of the biggest aid operations since World War II.

"A tragedy of this magnitude, however, requires a long-term commitment of resources if shattered communities are to be rebuilt and survivors provided with some hope for the future," he said.

He described the $1 billion partnership aid plan - the largest such contribution in Australia's history - "as an historic step in Australian-Indonesian relations".

Australia's contribution will build in the next few days to about 900 military personnel and include the support of a troop supply ship, HMAS Kanimbla. Seven large military aircraft, four helicopters, several medical teams, a field hospital and a water purification plan have been put into action so far.

But plans for a wider Australian role on the ground face a serious obstacle after Indonesia quietly banned foreign soldiers and aid workers from nearly all of Aceh, saying the security risks were too high to allow free movement without military approval.

On Saturday the Vice-President, Jusuf Kalla, told Government officials working on the crisis that foreigners were restricted to the provincial capitals of Banda Aceh and Meulaboh, in West Aceh.

The restrictions, revealed in a televised meeting in Jakarta, come despite an Indonesian minister, Alwi Shihab, telling the Herald last week that foreigners could go anywhere they were needed.

But the head of the National Disaster Co-ordination Board, Budi Adiputro, said aid groups and defence force personnel had been told specific permission was needed from the military commander in Aceh, Endang Suwarya, to go anywhere in Aceh except the two cities. "Only Banda Aceh and Meulaboh are fully controlled by the TNI [army] so that's why we allow foreigners to those two cities ... The policy is foreigners only in Banda Aceh and Meulaboh."

General Suwarya confirmed the restrictions. He said that if a US helicopter wanted to take relief stores to Aceh's second-biggest town of Lhokseumawe, it would need his permission to do so.

Mr Adiputro said the ban had been imposed to avoid any adverse reaction to the death of a foreigner caught up in a clash with GAM separatists. "If something happens and, say, one foreigner with white skin is killed, how will the international community react?"

Already several media organisations have reported clashes with suspected GAM members in stories likely to fuel support for restrictions on foreigners in Aceh.

The New York Times reported soldiers had shot dead seven people in the village of Lamlhom on Friday. A separate shooting took place yesterday near the United Nations headquarters in Banda Aceh. General Suwarya said it had not involved GAM.

Civilian doctors from South Australia later operated on an Indonesian soldier with gunshot wounds to both legs, although it was not clear if was shot by another soldier, as some reports suggested.

Amid an unprecedented international response to the disaster, governments and agencies have pledged more than $US5 billion ($6.6 billion) in aid. Corporations and private individuals have promised $US1.5 billion more.

On Saturday night, more than 8.6 million viewers watched a concert and telethon that raised $20.5 million in pledges to World Vision. Thousands more gathered at the Opera House to watch the simultaneous broadcast by three commercial networks.

Mark Metherell and Matthew Moore, with agencies

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