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Troops Block Reporter From Traveling In Aceh

Indonesian Troops Block Reporter From Traveling In Tsunami-Devastated Aceh Province

Indonesian soldiers prevented an Associated Press journalist from traveling in tsunami-wracked Aceh, a war-torn region that was off limits to foreigners before the disaster.

Maj. Gen. Bambang Darmono, the Indonesian military commander in charge of
relief operations in the province, denied Tuesday that there were any
"rules or policies" preventing journalists - local or foreign - from
traveling in the region, and pledged to investigate the incident.

On Monday, a soldier blocked Irwan Firdaus, a Jakarta-based AP reporter who
had been working in Aceh for several weeks, from crossing a bridge into the
town of Lhoknga. The soldier, who did not identify himself, said the
reporter needed permission from the local military commander.

Lhoknga, which was almost entirely wiped out by the tsunami, is about 25
kilometers (15 miles) west of Banda Aceh. The reporter was planning to
interview survivors in the town.

The incident reflects the continuing suspicion the military holds toward
journalists in the region. Foreign media and aid workers have been banned
from Aceh since 2003, when Indonesian troops launched a massive offensive
against the province's separatist guerrillas. More than 2,500 people have
been killed since then.

The travel ban has not been formally revoked, but since the Dec. 26 tsunami
the government has generally allowed foreign journalists and humanitarian
officials to travel to and around the province.

Last month, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said it was concerned
by signs of growing military intolerance toward foreign news media in Aceh
after U.S. freelance reporter William Nessen was expelled from the
province. It said at least four other international journalists working in
the province were either briefly detained or prevented from traveling.

Nessen spent 40 days in jail in Aceh in 2003 for violating his visa by
spending three weeks with separatist rebels from the Free Aceh Movement.
During his time with the guerrillas, he contacted international media and
accused the military of wanting to kill him.

Immigration authorities deported him on Jan. 25 after accusing him of
entering the country illegally, despite granting him a visa when he arrived
three weeks earlier. Nessen said a ban imposed on him after he served the
prison sentence had already expired.

The military is concerned that the influx of foreign aid groups and
journalists since the disaster could lead to increased international
sympathy for the rebels, who have been fighting a low-level war for
independence since 1976. The separatists have welcomed the spotlight the
tsunami has thrown on their movement.

Human rights groups have accused the Indonesian army of executions,
kidnappings, torture and collective punishment of civilians. They say most
of the victims of the fighting have been villagers caught up in army sweeps.

© Scoop Media

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