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Dozens of Aceh rebels captured, killed in Indonesian offensive

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Indonesian troops killed or captured dozens of insurgents in the nation's northwestern province of Aceh Tuesday, the second day of a major offensive aimed at destroying a separatist rebellion. The guerrillas pledged "a drawn-out war."

In her first remarks about the offensive, President Megawati Sukarnoputri said she ordered the operation with a heavy heart and urged the country to back her.

"I hope this action will be understood and supported by all the Indonesian people, including those groups working for democracy and human rights," said Megawati, a nationalist leader whose father was Indonesia's first president.

Megawati signed a decree Sunday authorizing six months of martial law and ordering 30,000 government troops to crush about 5,000 poorly armed guerrillas in the oil- and gas-rich region.

World leaders, meanwhile, urged Jakarta to resume peace talks to end the fighting. The conflict has simmered for 27 years and has killed 12,000 people, mainly during outbursts of fierce fighting.

The military said it shot and killed at least 12 rebels and arrested dozens more in Indonesia's biggest military offensive since it invaded East Timor in 1975.

Human rights groups urged the government to protect civilians and warned the offensive could lead to new abuses by Indonesia's military, which already has a long record of abuse in Aceh.

Indonesian military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto toured Aceh's capital of Banda Aceh Tuesday, directing troops to fight rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, known as GAM, "till your last drop of blood."

"Chase them, destroy GAM. Don't talk about it, just finish them off," he said. "If they want to surrender, then don't kill them. But if they persist, you only have one job, destroy them."

Rebel spokesman Sofyan Daud insisted the guerrillas will remain in control of their bases in the province of 4.3 million people.

"We will fight back hard," he told The Associated Press by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.

The wounds inflicted by the military "will hurt for a long time and create a new generation of rebels," Daud said. "It's going to be a drawn-out war."

The United States, Japan, Australia and members of the European Union said that weekend talks aimed at salvaging a Dec. 9 deal for regional autonomy in Aceh should have been given more time to succeed.

"We hope that it's going to be possible to get back on to the diplomatic path before too long," Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Tuesday.

The talks in Tokyo collapsed Sunday when rebels rejected Jakarta's demands to lay down their weapons and accept autonomy instead of independence.

"It's our judgment that the possible avenues to a peaceful resolution were not fully explored at the Tokyo conference," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "We call for the two parties to return to the negotiating process as soon as possible."

Dozens of schools were burned down in Aceh on Tuesday, with each side blaming the other for the destruction. One education official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said masked men in civilian clothes hurled gasoline and torched at least 180 schools during the night.

"Once the fighting was in the mountains and rebel strongholds. Now the violence has spread to the outskirts of Banda Aceh," said resident Muhammad Bukhori, as children nearby played in the still-smoking ruins of their school near the provincial capital.

The words "Merdeka! Merdeka!" -- "freedom" in Indonesian -- were scribbled with chalk on the school's walls.

Aceh Governor Abdullah Puteh predicted that the number of displaced people in the province will balloon to 100,000 from the current 5,000.

Under martial law, authorities now have wide powers to make arrests, detain suspects for over 40 days without charges, and limit movements in and out of the province 1,200 miles northwest of the capital, Jakarta.

The Dec. 9 cease-fire accord signed in Geneva envisioned autonomy, rebel disarmament and military withdrawals. It fell apart because neither side carried out its end of the deal.

Bitter Acehnese say Megawati is no different than her father Sukarno, who they say broke a promise for autonomy that was supposed to have been Aceh's reward for helping spearhead Indonesia's fight for independence from the Dutch during the 1940s.

Once an independent sultanate, Aceh has a long history of defiance, beginning with a Dutch colonialist invasion in 1870.

The region has a distinct language, culture and a stricter brand of Islam than practiced in the rest of Indonesia.

Critics say the latest offensive was launched not just to prevent the vast archipelago nation from breaking apart. Extortion, drug running and arms smuggling have led elements on both sides to prefer the status quo over peace.

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


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