Aceh links to al Qaeda dismissed
JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- The separatist Free Aceh rebels (GAM), fighting for independence in Indonesia's troubled province of Aceh, have rejected claims it has ties with Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist network.
And for the very first time, Free Aceh's claims were backed-up by the military.
"Osama bin Laden is not popular here. There are no signs to show that al-Qaeda is here," a senior military source in the provincial capital of Banda Aceh told CNN by telephone.
Asian intelligence sources had earlier claimed that GAM was working with al-Qaeda who had considered shifting its base from Afghanistan to Aceh. They said Osama bin Laden's henchman, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, had visited Aceh in June 2000.
GAM said its movement was not at all drawn to Osama bin Laden and has been concentrating on fighting for independence from Indonesian rule.
"We have never had any contact with Osama bin Laden. We don't want to have anything to do with an organization that plays the religious card like al-Qaeda," Free Aceh spokesman, Teuku Kamaruzzaman, told CNN from Banda Aceh by telephone.
"As far as I know, in areas controlled by us, there is no al-Qaeda. But I wouldn't know about the places which may have been infltrated by Muslim hardliners like Laskar Jihad. And if we see them, (Laskar Jihad), we will chase them out because we do not want Aceh to become the base of a group which stirs up racial and religious sentiment," Kamaruzzaman added.
'We are rational people'
Earlier this year, GAM stopped the militant Laskar Jihad -- who waged a holy war against Christians in the eastern Maluku islands -- from entering Aceh to stage a rally on the grounds of protecting the province from religious incitement.
The United States has accused Laskar Jihad of having links with al-Qaeda and its commander, Jaffar Umar Thalib, had once admitted to having met Osama bin Laden many years ago. However, Laskar Jihad also denies having ties with al-Qaeda.
Asked if any GAM members went to Afghanistan to fight against the U.S. during the war last year, Kamaruzzaman said:"Of course not. We are very rational people and we do not believe in such things even though we are Muslims. Those who went there were Javanese."
While Aceh is staunchly Muslim and Islamic law was implemented in January as part of the government's promise to grant greater autonomy to the province, the society is pluralistic and minorities are well-accepted and protected.
In May 1998, when Chinese became the target of mob violence during riots in several cities throughout Indonesia, many Chinese from the neighbouring city of Medan fled to Aceh for shelter.
"It is not in the Acehnese character to be racist. We mix freely and are open to all races, not just now but from centuries ago, from the time of the sultanate," said Kamaruzzaman.
GAM has waged a low-level insurgency against the central government since 1976.
The province has grown rebellious through the years as it perceives Jakarta as plundering its vast oil and gas resources while the majority of its people remain poor.
Fighting between the rebels and security forces have taken a huge toll on civilians. Last year, some 2,000 people, most of them civilians, are estimated to have been killed, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Human rights groups estimate about 600 people have died this year alone.
On Tuesday, top Security Minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, flew to Aceh for a week-long trip to access the situation before deciding whether or not to proceed with dialogue or impose martial law in the province in an effort to end violence there.
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