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Sunday, November 7, 1999 Published at 21:51 GMT

World: Asia-Pacific

Acehnese demand independence

Demonstrators threatened to declare independence unilaterally

Up to a million people have rallied in the Indonesian province of Aceh to demand a referendum on independence.

Fragile Archipelago
Calls for an immediate vote, similar to the one held in East Timor, were met with deafening roars of approval.

Demonstrators threatened to declare independence unilaterally if they were not granted a referendum.

[ image:  ]
The protesters, many of them villagers who had gathered over the weekend in the capital Banda Aceh, packed the streets around the city's main Baiturrahman mosque.

Organisers described the event as a general assembly of the Acehnese people. The local Red Cross estimated the crowd at up to one million.

The demonstration, co-ordinated by the Aceh Referendum Information Centre (SIRA), began with a giant flag proclaiming "Referendum" being raised on the mosque's flagpole.

Speakers condemned the Indonesian Government's brutal treatment of the province over the past decade.

The BBC's Jonathan Head: "A very well organised show of strength"
Many protesters said they had seen friends and relatives killed during military operations against the separatist movement.

They were unwilling to trust the assurances of the newly-elected democratic government in Jakarta, and said only a complete break from Indonesia would be acceptable.

Non-violent struggle

Rally organisers stressed that their strategy was different to that of the armed Free Aceh Movement guerrillas in the mountains.

The crowd was constantly reminded that the struggle should be non-violent.

The chairman of the rally's organising committee, Muhammad Nazar, called on participants not to let "provocateurs" incite them to engage in "actions that will only harm us and our struggle".

[ image: Thousands of people surrounded the main mosque]
Thousands of people surrounded the main mosque
Demonstrators dispersed peacefully at the end of the event.

The security forces, whose reputation has been sullied by human rights abuses in the past decade, stayed largely out of sight.

The regional police commander said he was happy to allow pro-independence protests to continue as long as they remained peaceful.

There were no reports of violence at the rally, but more than 100 prisoners broke out of a city jail during the demonstration. Police shot and wounded one inmate. Around 15 prisoners have been recaptured.

Collision course

Monday's rally was the latest in a series of recent pro-referendum demonstrations in Aceh. At least 50,000 protesters marched in the province on Thursday.

[ image:  ]
Aceh's separatists have been emboldened by the fall of the authoritarian President Suharto last year, and by the recent vote for independence in East Timor.

Indonesia's new president, Abdurrahman Wahid, has offered to negotiate with the pro-independence leaders.

The BBC's Jonathan Head, who is in Banda Aceh, says Aceh will not accept anything less than full independence from a state they say has brought them nothing but poverty and suffering.

However, Jakarta is keen to retain Aceh for its lucrative oil and gas industry. And the government cannot risk granting independence for fear that Indonesia itself will fall apart.

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