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Exxon oil pipeline cut off in troubled Aceh

The presence of thousands of Indonesian troops...

The presence of thousands of Indonesian troops guarding a US petroleum company?s plant in restive Aceh province did not prevent two explosions from severing a key natural gas pipeline.

A thick column of black smoke from the shattered underground pipeline blankets the hills south of the town of Lhokseumawe, North Aceh, where the Texas-based Exxon-Mobil company?s concession is located.

The blasts were believed to be the latest attack in a 25-year independence campaign by Aceh rebels. The rebels deny the charges, claiming the Indonesian armed forces are responsible for violence in the region.

The pipeline links ExxonMobil?s fields, which produce 1.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas daily, with portside refineries. Two months ago, the firm evacuated all foreign employees and their families and closed the facility, citing the declining security situation and repeated attacks, extortion attempts and kidnappings by separatist rebels gathered under the banner of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Indonesia?s force of roughly 32,000 men, many of them located in and around Lhokseumawe, was bolstered last month by the arrival of a 1,200-strong force trained in jungle warfare. The streets of the city are crawling with heavily armed soldiers and ExxonMobil?s facility is ringed by troops and armour, but the section of pipeline cut this week is unguarded.

The first explosion early on Sunday morning chased 68-year-old Mudawali from her tiny hut in a nearby banana grove. "I was very scared when I heard the explosion because I thought there was going to be a clash," the diminutive silver-haired woman said yesterday. "I ran as fast as I could to my son?s house and we hid with his family in the forest until morning."

Late Sunday night, a second explosion blew out the back wall of a cinder block pipeline control shed 150 metres away.

"It was a very big sound, booomph, when it blew up," said Ismain, 40. "It was definitely a bomb, I could tell because the sound was like a bomb. I have heard many."

The local Indonesian commander could not be reached for comment but large shards of piping with crudely welded joints scattered about both blast sites are reminiscent of the 70 kg pipe bomb a rebel soldier displayed for The Scotsman, suggesting a deliberate attack.

GAM?s Lhkseumawe military commander denied any involvement in attacks on the ExxonMobil facility. "It is not part of our strategy to attack it," said Ilyas Pase in an interview at his jungle hideaway. "Foreign people have nothing to fear from GAM."

GAM has accusing the central government of widespread human rights abuses and looting the country?s northernmost province of its natural resources. At least 6,000 Acehnese died or disappeared during a brutal nine year military operation sanctioned by former strongman Suharto, that officially ended in August 1999.