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Human Rights Group Urges International Access to Aceh - 2003-09-20

A report by a human rights group urges the Indonesian government to allow humanitarian organizations into the war-torn province of Aceh.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, says the ongoing military offensive against separatist rebels in Indonesia's Aceh Province may have sparked a humanitarian crisis, and urges the government to allow international relief agencies "full and unfettered" access to the area.

Indonesia has restricted access to Aceh by foreign aid workers, diplomats and journalists since May, when a cease-fire agreement broke down and the government launched its biggest military offensive since invading East Timor in 1975.

Vanessa Saenen, of Human Rights Watch's Brussels office, says the situation is now grave, with local non-governmental organizations reporting malnutrition and shortages of water and sanitation facilities.

"There is really a humanitarian crisis looming in Aceh at the moment," she said. "What we fear is these people who are in need at the moment, especially vulnerable groups like children who've become separated from their parents, or the elderly, or victims of trauma, or pregnant women, won't get the support they need if they're not going to be assisted by outside assistance."

Jakarta wants to wipe out the separatist Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, which has been fighting since 1976 for independence of the oil and gas rich province on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra.

Around 50,000 troops have been sent to root out some 5,000 rebels. More than 1,000 people have died in the renewed fighting.

Local human rights groups and aid workers in Aceh told VOA that international help is desperately required, as thousands of people have been displaced by the war and are in need of humanitarian assistance.

These groups say abuses by the military are taking place in villages deemed sympathetic to GAM, and they fear international aid workers won't be allowed because the government does not want outside witnesses to rights abuses. The government says it is capable of monitoring the human rights situation without outside help.

Vanessa Saenen says Human Rights Watch believes the government is placing more importance on a military solution than on humanitarian needs.

"The impression we have at the moment is bad," said Ms. Saenen. "President Megawati is putting anti-terrorism efforts on a higher priority level than humanitarian aid of Aceh at the moment and we really urge her not to forget the humanitarian crisis in Aceh at the moment for the sake of terrorism."

Human Rights Watch has urged the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, to take up the issue of international access to Aceh with Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri next week, when she is due to speak before the U.N. General Assembly.