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Asian disaster could change course of long-running conflict

Posted: Wednesday, December 29, 2004

JAKARTA, Indonesia - Two of the world's longest-running civil wars are being fought on land devastated by Sunday's earthquake and tsunamis. In one conflict, the tragedy showed hopeful signs of bringing the two sides together; in the other, it appeared to be hardening the divisions.

Immediately after the quake struck, the warring sides in Indonesia's Aceh province agreed to put hostilities on hold, while government and rebel spokespeople in ethnically divided Sri Lanka accused each other of mishandling the response to the disaster.

Aceh and Sri Lanka suffered the most from Sunday's catastrophes, which killed people in 11 countries from Asia to Africa. The dead included at least 27,000 people in Indonesia and more than 18,700 in Sri Lanka - a majority of the total death toll of at least 55,000.

Indonesia's vice president said the count in his country alone could reach 50,000.

In Aceh province on the northern tip of Indonesia's Sumatra island, insurgents seeking independence have been fighting government forces since 1976. The conflict has killed 13,000 people, including at least 2,000 in the past year.

But after the weekend disaster, the rebel Free Aceh Movement ordered a cease-fire so relief agencies could deliver supplies.

The government also loosened restrictions that for years have stopped aid agencies and journalists from operating freely in the province.

''We're holding back,'' said Lt. Col. Ali Tarunajaya, an Aceh police chief. ''We're not going to arrest the rebels. They're looking for members of their families, just like many of our police members are looking for theirs. We're all crying together.''

In Sri Lanka, the response could not have been more different.

Government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels, who have clashed since 1983 over the ethnic minority Tamils' claim for a homeland, refused to work together despite a massive humanitarian crisis.

The Tigers control a vast part of Tamil-majority northeastern Sri Lanka as a virtual independent state with its own administration, police and judiciary. The government controls remaining areas.

A cease-fire between the ethnic Sinhalese majority and the Tamils was brokered by Norway in 2002, but peace talks broke down more than a year ago.

''Ideally a national calamity like this should lead to greater flexibility by both parties to find a common approach to address the humanitarian needs of the people,'' said Jehan Perera, a political analyst from the National Peace Council.

But a Tamil member of parliament, Joseph Pararajasingham, said government leaders discussing relief efforts ''simply were not bothered about the plight of our people.''

Military spokesperson Brig. Daya Ratnayake said the government and military were doing what they could in areas under government control in the northeast.

''Even from a disaster like this they are trying to score points,'' he said of rebel statements criticizing the government.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga appealed for ''all people across ethnic lines to unite at this very difficult time.''

On Tuesday, the rebels conducted separate relief operations in areas under their control and made a separate appeal requesting aid from donor countries and U.N agencies.

''Assistance channeled through the Government of Sri Lanka has failed to reach the displaced in the northeast,'' TamilNet quoted the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization as saying.

''The present resources available ... are nowhere near sufficient to meet the huge crisis that has arisen, and we are faced with the prospect of an ever-increasing toll of the dead, outbreak of epidemics.''

The situation is less tense in Indonesia, analysts said, because rebels control little territory and their shadow government has little say in the region.

As a result, relief officials in Indonesia said they did not expect rescue efforts to be affected.

''The indication is that there shouldn't be a problem,'' said Michael Elmquist, who heads the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Jakarta. ''We've been told that the vice president has instructed the air force to facilitate the arrival of foreign assistance.''

Analysts said the military could use the relief effort to try to win the support of the 4.3 million people in the province, where soldiers are known for alleged brutality.

Ken Conboy, an Aceh specialist, said the disaster was unlikely to result in a resumption of peace talks but could provide opportunities for both sides to be more flexible.

The rebels have ''taken some very serious losses over the past year, and they may be looking for a reprieve,'' Conboy said.

''This also might provide an opportunity for the government to rethink their Aceh policy and come up with something that is a bit more cerebral, rather than continuing the policy of a civil emergency without any game plan.''



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