Unrest in Aceh as polls near
Thu, Feb 26, 2009

BANDA ACEH - WITH elections six weeks away, the hard-won peace in Indonesia's Aceh province is being replaced by fear as rival interests vie for power using threats, intimidation and murder.

Concerns are growing that the violence could erupt into a larger conflict over power and control of resources in mineral-rich Aceh, which holds elections on April 9.

The polls are the first direct elections for local parliament since the historic peace deal was signed between Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatist guerrillas and Jakarta in 2005, ending 30 years of bitter fighting.

But instead of marching toward a peaceful and democratic future, the conservative Islamic province on the northern tip of Sumatra island has been shaken over the past year by political and criminal violence.

No one is sure who is behind the incidents, which have included kidnappings, murders, shootings and grenade attacks on party offices and politicians' homes. Three former rebels were killed and one was injured in separate shootings earlier this month.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono warned against a slide back to conflict on Monday as he made only his second visit to Aceh since the peace agreement was signed in Helsinki.

'We have to drop all personal interest for the interest of the Acehnese people and the Indonesian people,' Mr Yudhoyono said in a speech in Banda Aceh.

'Don't ever look back. Don't break up the process that has halted a very long and bloody conflict,' he added, without blaming any party or group for the hostilities.

Mr Yudhoyono made the comments hours after meeting Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari, one of the architects of the Aceh peace deal, who is visiting Indonesia.

In a speech to a regional conference here late on Tuesday, Mr Ahtisaari warned that Aceh's peace was still in its infancy and called on local parties to show 'extreme restraint' ahead of the polls.

'With the peace process still in its infancy stage, there is of course the danger that any false moves, by any party, to hijack or manipulate the election process would derail efforts to establish sustainable peace in the province,' he said.

Few if any of the people behind the violence have been arrested and the police admit they can do little without witnesses willing to come forward.

Hendra Fadli, the Aceh coordinator for the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, said Indonesian troops could not provide security because there was an 'impression' among many in Aceh that they were part of the problem.

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