- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 12, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — A tsunami survivor rescued after 15 days adrift in the Indian Ocean described yesterday how he lived on coconuts that floated by, tearing them open with his teeth. Indonesia, meanwhile, said it hoped to ease the bottleneck of aid flights by opening a second airport north of Sumatra island.

Also yesterday, Indonesia’s military chief extended a new cease-fire offer to rebels in Aceh province, the region hit hardest by the Dec. 26 tsunami that killed more than 152,000 people across southern Asia.

Rebels in the area welcomed the proposal made by Gen. Endriartono Sutarto during a press conference in Banda Aceh.

“We have to work together to help Aceh,” Gen. Sutarto said.

The 21-year-old survivor, Ari Afrizal, was picked up Sunday by a container ship after being swept out to sea by the tsunami from a beachfront construction site in Aceh. He is the third Indonesian to be rescued and brought to Malaysia.

“The earthquake lasted about 15 minutes,” Mr. Ari said after the ship docked at Port Klang near the capital, Kuala Lumpur. “Then the waves came, big, big waves that slammed down hard on us.”

Mr. Ari, who appeared fit despite the ordeal, said he saw four of his friends grab pieces of debris or uprooted trees, “but we drifted away from each other as the waves rolled us out further into the sea.”

For a while, he lay on a 5-foot-long plank, weak and exhausted.

“My throat was burning. The sun was hot. I had cuts all over my body. The salt water was stinging. I couldn’t even find my voice to call out to other survivors. Eventually, they all drifted away, and I was all alone,” he said in an interview from his hospital bed.

“I prayed and prayed. I told God, ‘I don’t want to die.’ … I worried about my elderly parents and asked for a chance to take care of them. As if my prayers were answered, a broken [boat] floated toward me a few days later.”

He ended up staying on the listing boat for five days before spotting a large unmanned raft with a hut on it. He swam up to it and found a gallon bottle of water aboard.

On the 15th day, Mr. Ari said, he awoke and saw the container ship bearing down on him. He attracted its attention by waving his shirt, whistling and shouting.

Hoping to relieve pressure on the tiny airport outside the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, Indonesia opened up a new airport on the island of Sabang, north of Sumatra, said Budi Atmaji, chief of staff for the country’s relief operations. The airport at Banda Aceh has only one landing strip and is struggling to cope with about 200 flights per day.

Mr. Atmaji also reiterated the government’s concern for foreign aid workers’ security in a province where Indonesia’s military has battled separatist rebels for more than 20 years.

Speaking from Sweden, the rebels’ spokesman, Baktiar Abdullah, said the government’s cease-fire offer “has come a bit late, but still, it is something that is positive and good.” However, he expressed skepticism about the proposal, noting that the government had sent thousands of soldiers to the region since the tsunami.

Gen. Sutarto repeated claims that the guerrillas, who have fought for years for a separate homeland on Sumatra island’s northern tip, had tried to hijack relief supplies.

The Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym GAM, “is trying to stop food assistance, and they are trying to rob the food away,” Gen. Sutarto said. “If they ask for food, we will give it to them. They do not have to do this.”

The military has long been accused of rights abuses in Aceh and offered no evidence to back up its claim. The rebels denied it and said their supporters are among the thousands of victims of the disaster who need help.

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