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Aid workers urged to leave Aceh

Banda Aceh, May 27 (Reuters): Indonesia has told foreign aid workers to leave troubled Aceh for security reasons and says Jakarta wants to take over all humanitarian assistance in the province.

The warning comes as Indonesia’s military announced plans to step up operations against rebels which began eight days ago and have caused dozens of deaths, forced thousands of people to flee their homes and disrupted food distribution.

UN aid workers say they have not felt their security threatened by the offensive, but expected to abide by the order.

“It didn’t directly say a ban, but we have been firmly advised that it would be better for us to cease our functions in Aceh for security purposes,” said Michael Elmquist, head of the UN’s Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

He was referring to a letter OCHA received from Indonesia’s chief social welfare minister, Yusuf Kalla. “Our staffers do not feel their safety is in jeopardy but it’s the kind of situation where we need to base ourselves on what the government’s advice is,” Elmquist said.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa earlier told Reuters that local government and the Indonesian Red Cross would in future be responsible for distributing all humanitarian assistance in Aceh, Indonesia's westernmost province.

He said foreign aid workers“should be aware of this policy and leave Aceh. Their physical presence and direct contact in Aceh are not needed due to security concerns.”

The United Nations said the five international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and four U.. agencies operating in Aceh Ä with around 10 foreign staff in all Ä had not been banned from the province, but were given little choice but to leave.

But in Aceh's provincial capital, Banda Aceh, one aid worker said staff had no plans to leave yet.

”Everybody is still here. It's just a matter of wait-and-see on what these statements from Jakarta mean.”

Another aid worker, however, said security was a genuine concern and told Reuters its staff had stopped operating in the field.

Some human rights group officials say they are suspicious of Jakarta's motives, fearing abuses may take place if foreign aid workers are barred from the province.

”This is not about the safety of NGO workers. Without the international NGOs the military will have more space to attack the people,” said Munir, of the Indonesian rights NGO Kontras.

Indonesia has military and police forces of more than 40,000 facing 5,000 guerrilla-style fighters of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), and plans to step up its latest offensive against the rebels with more vehicle searches, document checks and patrols.

”These are patrols for making contact, search and destroy... deliberate attacks, this is part of the intensification,” Indonesia's main military spokesman, Major General Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, told reporters in Banda Aceh on Tuesday.

The two sides have been fighting for 27 years in a simmering conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people, most of them civilians, in the province on the northern tip of Sumatra.

Counts of military, GAM and civilian casualties in the latest fighting vary widely, but an Indonesian Red Cross official said on Monday its workers had removed 82 bodies from conflict areas since the military offensive began.

The latest fighting has also forced as many as 23,000 people from their homes and disrupted transportation of supplies and passengers within the remote province. But one international aid agency said there was no food crisis in the province, which had just finished a rice harvest.

The military has said it expects the campaign to last six months, although on Tuesday Indonesia's top commander General Endriartono Sutarto told reporters he thought GAM forces would be reduced significantly within two months and not be in a position to take any initiatives.

GAM wants full independence for the province, rich in oil and natural gas and other resources, while Jakarta is only willing to grant autonomy.

(With additional reporting by Joanne Collins in Jakarta)

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