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The BBC's Jonathan Head in Banda Aceh
"His audience was just a handful of government officials"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 19 December, 2000, 08:03 GMT
Wahid spurned in Aceh
The main mosque in Banda Aceh
Tight security at Banda Aceh's Great Mosque
President Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia has made a brief visit to the rebellious province of Aceh, but pro-independence rebel leaders refused to meet him.

Jakarta deployed more than 2,000 extra troops in the devoutly Muslim province for the visit, which lasted just two hours. The streets of the provincial capital Banda Aceh were deserted except for the heavy troop presence.

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid
Observers say Wahid has little to offer the people of Aceh

The mood in Aceh was grim after a year which has seen more than 800 people killed in fighting between Indonesian security forces and independence activists.

Just a few hundred people, mostly government officials, were at the Great Mosque in Banda Aceh to greet Mr Wahid.

The BBC correspondent in Banda Aceh, Jonathan Head, says the president went there in the guise of a religious leader hoping to reach out to the Acehnese.

Mr Wahid offered to continue dialogue with the rebels after the current truce expires next month.

The offer appears to contradict recent statements from Indonesian military commanders that they will take tough action against the rebels once the truce runs out.

Our correspondent says Jakarta, which once offered the Acehnese a referendum on their future, has now given the army a free hand in the province.

It is almost impossible to see enough common ground emerging between the two sides to avoid further bloodshed, our correspondent says.

Independence drive

Mr Wahid made a jovial speech in the mosque, but his plan to implement Islamic Sharia law in Aceh has been widely rejected.

Nobody but the officials are interested in the visit. Wahid is not bringing us anything new

Aceh resident Usman Ali Ghaffar

Few Acehnese seem ready to accept any gift from Jakarta that falls short of a referendum on independence, our correspondent says.

The crackle of gunfire and a small explosion during the night were evidence of how close the conflict has now come to Banda Aceh.

The rebels have a well-armed camp just a few kilometres from the town.

Many of the extra elite troops brought in may stay on if, as seems almost certain, the current cease-fire expires on 15 January without any prospect of talks between the two sides.

The president has proved unable to control the brutality of his army and police force.

The hundreds who have died this year include a number of young political activists killed by mysterious death squads.

Long-running conflict

The Free Aceh Movement has been fighting for more than 20 years for an independent Islamic state.

Gunman, Aceh
Violence in Aceh has left thousands dead

Aceh, which is rich in natural resources, lies about 1,750km (1,100 miles) north-west of Jakarta.

The government is hoping to appease the province's four million people by granting them greater autonomy next year.

But the rebels insist they will only settle for independence.

Most people on Aceh appear resigned to seeing a lot more bloodshed.

"Nobody but the officials are interested in the visit. He [Wahid] is not bringing us anything new," said resident Usman Ali Ghaffar.

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See also:

19 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Murder and rape in Aceh
14 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Aceh calls for 'Timor-style' vote
25 Nov 99 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Indonesia needs Aceh
13 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Analysis: Indonesia's fragile archipelago
25 Sep 00 | Asia-Pacific
Aceh truce extended
20 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Wahid marks tricky first year
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