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Aid workers stay put in Aceh

Banda Aceh, May 28 (Reuters): Foreign medical supplies have begun arriving in Indonesia’s war-torn Aceh province to help avert a humanitarian crisis, as international aid workers stayed put despite a government order to leave.

Three tonnes of emergency supplies from Unicef and WHO were flown in late yesterday with another 17 tonnes expected within a few days.

Aceh’s civilian administration, under military control as part of martial law regulations, said today it had no problem with foreign aid workers there. The central government yesterday told them to leave. The warning came as Indonesia’s military said this week it had stepped up operations against rebels.

that began nine days ago, an offensive that has left scores dead, forced thousands of people to flee their homes and disrupted food distribution.

Indonesian military chief General Endriartono Sutarto told reporters in Jakarta on Wednesday his troops were making fast progress against the rebels, gaining control of key base areas in less than two weeks against expectations it would take months.

Waiting for the additional supplies to be flown in, Aceh's vice governor said he had no objection to the presence of UNICEF and WHO foreign officials with him at the airport in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.

”How can we not be happy with people who have sympathy with us'” Azwar Abubakar told reporters.

The chief of the U.. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Jakarta, Michael Elmquist, said U.. agencies and international NGOs had agreed to remain in Banda Aceh but not travel outside the city for security reasons.

MORE AID ON WAY

Siddharth Chatterjee, chief of UNICEF's emergency section for Indonesia, said the 20 tonnes of aid comprised emergency medical and hospital kits that would provide cover for 200,000 people.

He added that educational supplies would be sent soon Ä ”schools in a box” that would cover 15,000 children and include tents, books and other materials. Nearly 400 schools have been torched since the offensive began.

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

Since the downfall of autocratic president Suharto in 1998, Indonesia's regions have flexed their muscles and often ignore orders from Jakarta. It was unclear if Aceh's military rulers would get involved in the row over foreign aid workers.

There are about 10 aid workers with U.. agencies and NGOs in Aceh. Some human rights officials say they are suspicious of Jakarta's motives, concerned abuses may take place if foreign aid workers are barred.

Indonesia has a military and police force of more than 40,000 facing 5,000 guerrilla-style fighters. The two sides have been fighting for 27 years in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people.

Military commander Sutarto said his forces' strategy in the latest offensive was to first move into those populated areas where Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels were strong.

”...we have occupied their strong bases which were almost 100 percent supported by civilians. They have been under our control and they cannot claim they are their bases anymore.”

From that point, he said, the military would move to separate GAM from the population and then crush its forces.

The entire campaign had been projected to last six months, but now, Sutarto said:“I plan to speed the timetable to within the next two months”.

(With additional reporting by Telly Nathalia in Jakarta)

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