ACEH BESAR, Indonesia -- The United Nations has banned its staff from traveling in parts of tsunami-battered Aceh province because of reported fighting between Indonesian troops and separatist rebels. But a rebel commander yesterday begged foreign aid workers to stay and promised that guerrillas will not attack relief groups.
The UN action came amid a warning of an imminent terror strike in the region and a claim by Indonesia's military that guerrillas may target the aid groups.
"Our mothers, our wives, our children are victims from this tragedy," rebel leader Tengku Mucksalmina said in a jungle camp about a two-hour drive outside Banda Aceh, the provincial capital of Aceh.
"We would never ambush any convoy with aid for them. We want them [relief workers] to stay. We ask them not to leave the Acehnese people who are suffering," Mucksalmina said, his voice rising with emotion.
Last week, the Indonesian military insisted that troops provide escorts to foreign aid workers outside Banda Aceh to defend against attacks from the Free Aceh Movement, commonly known by the acronym GAM. The militants have been fighting for three decades to gain independence for Aceh, an area hard hit by the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami.
As Mucksalmina spoke in a rare interview inside a wooden shack, about 15 fighters -- some dressed in green camouflage fatigues, others in brown military T-shirts -- stood guard outside, armed with M-16 and Kalashnikov rifles.
Helicopters continuously buzzed overhead. Some of the rebels ate sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves. Sacks full of food and ammunition were stashed in the shed.
One rebel, who identified himself only as Iskandar, had a gash caked with dried blood on his shin.
"This is from a gunshot wound from a recent clash with Indonesian soldiers," he said. "The military operations are going on."
The government has warned that the guerrillas might ambush aid convoys to steal food, and the Danish Foreign Ministry issued a statement yesterday warning of an "imminent terror attack on foreign relief workers" in Aceh.
Later yesterday, UN security officials declared a state of "heightened awareness" for agency relief workers in Indonesia pending investigation of the Danish warning. The United Nations also issued a 24-hour travel ban for its foreign staff on the 280-mile stretch of road between Banda Aceh and Medan because of concerns about reported fighting.
Colonel Nachrowi Djazairi, a military spokesman in Banda Aceh, said he had received no reports of fighting on the road. But he said the rebels posed dangers to the relief effort.
"The rebels are the biggest threat to security in Aceh," Djazairi said. "They kidnap Indonesian officials, extort the villagers and shoot at us. They are a menace to the delivery of aid here."
Niels-Erik Andersen, of the Danish Foreign Ministry's security section, declined to say what prompted the warning or what kind of threat was made against aid workers in the region.
Mucksalmina, however, said his forces did not need to raid aid convoys because before the tsunami disaster, they had purchased a year's supply of rice, instant noodles, and other food.
The rebels wanted to share their food with disaster survivors, he said.
Mucksalmina said that since Dec. 27, the rebels have been ordered to stay at their bases and to shoot only in self-defense.