Indonesia launches major military offensive against rebels

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Indonesia launched a major military offensive Monday against separatist rebels in a northwest province -- firing rockets, parachuting troops and landing marines after peace talks collapsed and martial law was imposed.

More than 1,000 elite soldiers landed in the oil- and gas-rich Aceh province in what is expected to be Indonesia's biggest military operation since invading East Timor in 1975.

"I have ordered soldiers to hunt for those who refuse to surrender ... hunt for them and destroy them," Indonesian military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto said upon arriving in Banda Aceh.

About 30,000 government troops are trying to crush about 5,000 poorly armed guerrillas in a dense, mountainous forest. The sides have been fighting since 1976, making this one of Asia's longest-running conflicts.

By late afternoon, no rebel casualties were reported and troops were meeting minimal resistance, said Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsuddin.

Monday's attack signaled a return to military confrontation after the breakdown of a Dec. 9 cease-fire between the government and the Free Aceh Movement.

The accord -- which envisioned autonomy, rebel disarmament and military withdrawals -- unraveled in recent months following violence and mutual recriminations in the province 1,200 miles northwest of the capital, Jakarta. More than 12,000 people have been killed in the decades of fighting.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri spared no time ordering a crackdown after rebels refused to honor a government-imposed deadline for laying down weapons and abandoning their demand for independence.

Five rebel negotiators also were arrested and accused of carrying out a series of recent bombings in Indonesia.

A presidential decree authorized six months of military rule in Aceh, giving authorities wide powers to make arrests and limit movements in and out of the province.

Nervous residents braced for harsher strikes and heavy casualties.

"The rebels will hide behind the civilians, and how will the army tell the difference? Many people will die," a resident named Mawarni said after praying at Banda Aceh's main mosque.

The government estimated that the number of refugees in Aceh will balloon to 100,000 from the current 5,000.

On Monday, attack planes droned over the provincial capital of Banda Aceh and fired rockets at a suspected rebel weapons cache at a hillside base. The blasts destroyed an abandoned chicken coop and farmers' huts near empty villages surrounded by palm-fringed rice fields.

Six C-130 Hercules transport aircraft released 458 parachuters over an airstrip close to Banda Aceh, Maj. Gen. Erwin Sujono said.

More than 600 marines landed from one of 15 warships off the province's northern coast, an area with a heavy concentration of rebels, Sujono said.

Aceh, on Sumatra island's northern tip, was once an independent sultanate and has a long history of defiance, beginning with a Dutch colonialist invasion in 1870.

The Acehnese were at the forefront of Indonesia's fight for independence during the 1940s. When Indonesia declared independence in 1945, Aceh was promised autonomy but never got it -- the first of many broken promises by Jakarta that triggered a series of Acehnese rebellions.

Many Acehnese in the world's most populous Muslim nation want to be governed by a brand of Islam much stricter than that practiced in the rest of Indonesia.

But the ongoing crackdown is not only about keeping the vast archipelago nation in one piece. Extortion, drug running and arms smuggling have allowed elements on both sides to profit from the conflict.

Also at stake are huge reserves of oil and gas that locals want to keep for themselves.

Weekend talks in Tokyo were arranged hastily under pressure from international donors alarmed by the prospect of renewed fighting. Even as the two sides talked, thousands of Indonesian troops massed in the province.

The European Union, Japan, the United States and the World Bank issued a joint statement Monday saying they "deeply regret" that the two sides "failed to seize the unique opportunity before them."

Rebel leader Malik Mahmud said he believed the Indonesian government was "looking for a way to declare war" and had no intention of compromising.

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