Indonesia's military commander in the country's troubled Aceh province has reportedly acknowledged that an aide to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden visited the province last year. Separatist rebels in Aceh deny any links with the terrorist organization.
The Jakarta Post newspaper said the army chief in Aceh, Major General Djali Jusuf, has confirmed that an aide to Osama bin Laden visited the restive province last year. The general does not say who the aide was or whom he met with during the visit. But he said the incident did not result in an al-Qaida presence in Aceh.
The report prompted a swift response from Free Aceh Movement separatist rebels. They categorically reject any suggestion that they have had contacts with al-Qaida terrorists. Agan, who only uses one name, is a rebel spokesman in Jakarta. "Al-Qaida has no business with us, not before and not in the future," he said. Unconfirmed reports of an al-Qaida visit in Aceh first surfaced a couple of months before the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. The reports at the time said two Middle Eastern men spent several days in Aceh, but left after failing to establish ties with local Muslims.
Recently, the U.S. television news organization, CNN, reported that Osama bin Laden deputy Ayman Al-Zawahri visited Aceh two years ago.
Mr. Agan said the Free Aceh Movement has no knowledge of such visits. He said his group thinks the Indonesian government is using the reports to create suspicion about the rebels. He insists that the government is trying to get the Free Aceh Movement branded as a terrorist organization so that Jakarta can have a free hand to crack down on the group, also known as GAM.
"I hope the international community will not be swayed by this cheap propaganda by the Indonesian government. Better to find new scapegoats and now they have found one in GAM," Agan said.
Thousands have died in Aceh's bitter 26 year war between Indonesian government troops and the separatists. Fighting in the tiny province, on the tip of Sumatra island, has sharply escalated in the past year. Jakarta says it is now considering imposing martial law.
Indonesian officials deny that al-Qaida has a presence in the world's most populous Muslim nation. But Indonesia's neighbor, Singapore, insists that Jemaah Islamiya a radical group with alleged ties to al-Qaida, has bases throughout the country.