Middle East Correspondent
NICOSIA, June 4 -- ExxonMobil Corp. has been exempted from a decree by Indonesian authorities banning all foreign ships from the 12 mile territorial waters of Aceh, an oil and natural gas-rich province in north Sumatra adjacent to the strategically important Strait of Malacca.
"To protect security and the legal procedures, Acehnese waters are temporarily closed to all maritime traffic and shipping sailing under foreign flags," said Maj. Gen Endang Suwarya, Indonesia's martial law administrator in Aceh. "Firm action will be taken against any vessels violating this decree," Suwarya said.
Indonesian authorities said that while warnings would be given via radio, signal lamps, semaphore, and ship sirens, even without warnings it would be legal to sink a vessel by cannon or any other type of "explosive" weapons system.
The proclamation came into effect on May 30 and applies to "all motorized or sailing vessels involved in cargo or any other type of activity, which operate on the surface of or under the water." On Tuesday, a Panamanian-flagged oil tanker was arrested at Sabang port on Weh Island under terms of the decree.
Oil companies exempt
Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Mudhakir, a senior officer responsible for ensuring the security of vital projects around the country, said ships belonging to energy companies in Acehincluding ExxonMobil and PT Arun NGLwere not affected by the policy.
Indonesia's Navy Chief of Staff Adm. Bernard Kent Sondakh said the country's warships were ready to implement the decision, and that they would fire on any foreign vessels entering Aceh waters without prior notice. Bernard said the policy was justified under the International Law of the Sea.
The reason behind the decision was not stated, but the Indonesian government has long suspected Acehnese rebels of smuggling weapons from Thailand and Malaysia. Bernard said Indonesian warships had detained around 100 vessels, some of them loaded with weapons, about one month before martial law was declared in Aceh on May 19.
The ban on foreign shipping may also be designed to prevent members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) from fleeing the war-torn region, where rebels have been fighting for the independence of the resource-rich province. The struggle for Aceh's independence began in the 1870s during the Dutch occupation, with the current phase of insurgency erupting in 1976.
Across the Strait of Malacca from Aceh, Malaysian police have stepped up land patrols at coastal borders in a move to prevent illegal entry of rebels or illegal immigrants fleeing unrest in the Indonesian province, a senior security official said Saturday.
Malaysia's Internal Security and Public Order Deputy Director Arthur Edmonds said the police patrols would provide support for existing surveillance by the marine forces, which were intensified since May 23, in preparation for an expected influx of migrants.
"We have stepped up coastal security by using marine boats (but) if necessary we will beef up security at certain landing points," he said, adding that police were also on the lookout for rebel fighters. "We will step up our operations," he was quoted as saying by the official Bernama news agency.
Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed a decree authorizing a military operation and imposed martial law in staunchly Muslim Aceh province on May 19 after peace talks in Tokyo with separatist rebels failed, security officials said.
The decree signed by Megawatti said a series of peace moves, including the granting of special autonomy to Aceh, "does not stop the Free Aceh Movement's intention to break away from the Unitary State of Indonesia and to declare their independence. "It is considered necessary to place the province. . .in a state of emergency at the level of military emergency."
Security stepped up
Last December a peace agreement hailed as a breakthrough was signed between the Indonesian government and GAM leaders. In return for rebel disarmament, it gave Aceh autonomy and the right to 70% of its oil and gas revenues. But GAM handed Jakarta a casus belli by refusing to abandon its ultimate goal of complete independence.
Hours after the collapse of the last-ditch peace talks in Tokyo, GAM bases were pounded with rockets, 15 warships steamed into position along the Aceh coast, and 1,000 special forces troops landed by sea and air.
Top security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said Megawati "ordered concerned authorities to carry out the integrated operations," including what was termed a security restoration operation. Martial law will last for 6 months but may be extended.
GAM military spokesman Sofyan Dawood called for a general strike in the province and urged industries like ExxonMobil and the Arun natural gas plant to shut down. "We don't want to attack vital projects but if the military or police who guard the projects make a sweeping, we will attack military or police there."
The Indonesian army immediately stepped up security around ExxonMobil's LNG plant in Lhokseumawe after other GAM commanders threatened to attack "strategic installations." The plant, which ExxonMobil operates for Indonesian national oil company Pertamina, supplies LNG to steel mills and municipal power plants in Japan.
Despite the imposition of martial law, ExxonMobil has continued operating in Aceh as usual, according to Iin Arifin Takhyan, a senior official of Indonesia's Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry. "There has been no request for any evacuation of ExxonMobil employees so far," he said late last month, adding "it means the plant remains operational."