MEDAN, Indonesia, Reuters
Gunfire hit two helicopters carrying Indonesia’s mines and energy minister and other officials in rebellious Aceh on Tuesday, less than a week before President Abdurrahman Wahid is due to visit the province.
A military official said there were no casualties in the attack, which underscores the security headaches in Aceh that earlier this month forced the closure of economically-vital gas fields.
The shooting is the latest in a stream of bad news buffeting Indonesia as Wahid fights for his political life after just 16 months as the country’s first democratically-elected president.
Wahid, under pressure to quit after being censured last month by parliament over two financial scandals, is due to visit Aceh next Monday. It was unclear if he would still go to the province, where rebels have been fighting for independence for decades.
In Jakarta, 2,000 Wahid supporters rallied for most of the day, although there was no sign of the huge crowds, for or against him, that had been predicted. By late afternoon many protesters had dispersed and there were no clashes.
Shots hit a helicopter ferrying minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro to the closed gas fields run by Exxon Mobil on the tip of Sumatra island, the official said. Another helicopter with journalists on board was also struck by bullets.
“During the flight from Lhokseumawe (town) to the Exxon gas fields, a helicopter with the minister on board was shot at by unidentified people,” regional military chief Major General I.G. Purnawa told reporters.
Purnawa, speaking later in Medan, capital of North Sumatra province to the south of Aceh, added that gunfire could also be heard while the minister was visiting the Exxon fields.
“The situation was tense when the minister was visiting the gas fields, a group of unidentified people were trying to approach the fields. There were shootings after that, but no reports of casualties,” Purnawa said.
Exxon Mobil’s gas fields in Aceh have been closed for more than a week, halting output at the PT Arun NGL liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant there and forcing utilities in Japan and South Korea to seek alternative suppliers.
Exxon Mobil says the cumulative effect of dozens of security incidents over the past two years has been to force the temporary shutdown in Aceh.
Early on Tuesday one child was killed when security forces clashed with rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) near the Arun plant, a military source said. Civilians are frequently caught in the crossfire in Aceh, where dozens of people have died in clashes in recent weeks despite a cease-fire.
The military is sending fresh troops to Aceh to help bolster security at the Exxon fields.
In Jakarta, residents breathed a sigh of relied when planned huge protests in support of Wahid failed to take off.
Indonesia’s leading Muslim group, the 40-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), last week said it would bring thousands onto the streets of Jakarta on Tuesday to defend Wahid.
NU sources say at least 60,000 members of the organization, headed by Wahid until he became president in 1999 and founded by his grandfather, have made their way to Jakarta in recent weeks.
They include hundreds of members of suicide squads called the Brave Movement to Die Defending Gus Dur, many of whom believe they are protected by magic spells. Gus Dur is Wahid’s nickname.
The sources now say big protests in support of Wahid will be held early next month.
Local newspapers on Tuesday said six political parties — including the three largest — had begun drafting a second rebuke for Wahid over the two financial scandals, even before he has responded to parliament’s first censure over the issue.
Wahid has until May to reply to last month’s censure, which could ultimately trigger his impeachment.