Indonesia president pledges faster mud compensation

By Heri Retnowati SIDOARJO, Indonesia (Reuters) – Indonesia’s president pledged to speed up compensation for tens of thousands of people whose homes have been engulfed by a mud volcano after a tour of the disaster site in East Java.

But some of the victims dismissed President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s three-day trip — during which he took an aerial tour of the area but did not visit displaced families — as a stunt.

With an area four times the size of Monaco now under mud, the government has tried several schemes to halt the flow, including dropping giant concrete balls into the crater, but the hot mud still spurts at a rate of 148,000 cubic metres a day.

“The process of paying compensation to 10,000 residents will be accelerated,” Yudhoyono told a news conference late on Tuesday after talks with local authorities and PT Lapindo Brantas, the operator of the oil well from where the mud is flowing.

He said Lapindo had the financial capacity to pay all claims.

Earlier this week 20 mud flow victims met Yudhoyono to share their stories at his private residence near Jakarta. The former general was reported to have shed tears on hearing their plight and vowed to visit the area to help resolve their grievances.

But hundreds of victims rallied on Tuesday in a market area where 6,000 displaced families have been sheltering, angry over Yudhoyono’s decision to skip a visit to the camp.

Some carried banners reading: “We don’t need your tears” and “The conscience of the nation has died”.

Herman Samin, who recently had mud and hot water shooting into his living room, dismissed the president’s promises.

“The president is merely looking for answers to give should he be summoned by parliament. This is all just politics.”

Demonstrators also blocked a road, one of the few remaining access points to the source of the mud volcano, stopping trucks loaded with sand and rocks for construction of dams.

Presidential aide Andi Mallarangeng said Yudhoyono had decided not to visit the displaced people because he had already listened to representatives of the mud flow victims.

Lapindo has been ordered by the government to pay 3.8 trillion rupiah ($418.6 million) to victims and to help halt the flow, but officials say the cost could be double that.

Lapindo and PT Energi Mega Persada Tbk, which indirectly controls Lapindo, dispute the idea the disaster was caused by the drilling and also whether Lapindo alone should shoulder the cost.

The situation has also become a bigger embarrassment for the government since Energi is owned by the Bakrie Group, controlled by the family of chief social welfare minister, Aburizal Bakrie.

Nirwan Bakrie, brother of the minister and chairman of Bakrie Capital, said Lapindo was committed to paying compensation.

“We are working with all our might to carry out the the task, but we have made mistakes and we were told what they were,” Bakrie told a joint news conference with the president.

© Reuters 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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