updated 1/8/2005 2:13:53 PM ET 2005-01-08T19:13:53

Indonesia’s military has stepped up patrols for separatist rebels in tsunami-stricken northern Sumatra island after isolated skirmishes in recent days raised fears the conflict could hamper the relief effort.

Officials from the United States and Australia, which both have unarmed military teams helping the massive aid effort, said on Saturday that they had assessed potential threats and were satisfied that Indonesian forces were providing adequate security.

Separatist rebels in the fiercely independent northern Sumatran province of Aceh have been fighting a low-intensity war against Indonesian troops for an independent homeland for more than 20 years. Indonesian forces are accused of brutality in the region and are generally hated.

The conflict was abruptly interrupted by the Dec. 26 earthquake off Sumatra and the tsunami it spawned, which killed more than 100,000 people and left five times that number homeless. The Free Aceh Movement, known by the acronym GAM, declared a unilateral cease-fire and the military said it would not target suspected rebels during the emergency.

Hostilities resume
But clashes have broken out in recent days. Marine Lt. Col. Bambang Sus said Indonesian troops on Wednesday ambushed a group of alleged rebel fighters in the northern Aceh town of Seunudun, killing two in a one-hour gunbattle near a refugee camp.

Another spokesman, Lt. Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki, blamed the rebels for resuming hostilities and said military patrols had been increased.

“Our operations are continuing against GAM, especially as we get reports that the rebels are creating unrest,” Basuki said.

The Indonesian government lifted restrictions on outsiders traveling to Aceh after the disaster, and thousands of workers from scores of aid agencies have rushed into the region.

Adding to security concerns is the appearance of Laskar Mujahidin, an extremist group with alleged links to al-Qaida, at an aid camp near the airport in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. The group said it was there to take part in the relief effort and to offer Islamic counseling.

Concerns downplayed
Security analysts said they feared extremist groups known to operate in Indonesia will be looking for any opportunity to launch terrorist attacks on American or other Western targets.

But Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said on Saturday that American troops taking part in the relief effort have taken precautions against possible attacks, though he said the likelihood of such strikes was remote.

“This is a time for helping human beings who are in distress. This is not the kind of field for people to come in and undertake violent acts,” Kelly said during a visit to Juala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Australian Defense Minister Robert Hill, who visited the Sumatran city of Medan on Saturday, said Australian troops were unarmed in Aceh and were relying on Indonesian forces for security.

He said the separatist conflict wouldn’t have any bearing on Australia’s involvement in the aid mission and was unlikely to trigger tensions between Australia and Indonesia’s troops.

Security analysts say launching a terrorist attack on anyone helping tsunami victims would likely backfire by souring any hope extremists might hold of winning popular support. But they say radical groups may try to stir up anti-American sentiment in Aceh.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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