Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Things get ugly as Jakarta sends in the troops

It started with rebels torching schools and some high-profile army movement, but it's likely to get very bloody

By John Aglionby  /  THE GUARDIAN , JEUMPA, ACEH PROVINCE, INDONESIA

The fire raging in the offices at State Junior High School 3 was out of control. Flames tore through the roof and climbed up the outside walls as smoke climbed high into the hot, tropical sky.

A similar scene was unfolding 150m away, except here it was a 12-seater bus straddling the trans-Sumatra highway that was burning. A kilometer away in the other direction a jeep smouldered.

The road, nearby houses and surrounding patchwork quilt of rice fields were deserted except for a six-man Indonesian army special forces patrol searching for the arsonists. Five ran down the sides of the road and the sixth brought up the rear in a armor-plated Toyota minibus with "No Fear" stencilled in big red letters across the back window.

This was no training exercise. The soldiers operating in the village of Jeumpa yesterday were part of Indonesia's largest military deployment since the invasion of East Timor in 1975. More than 40,000 troops and police are in Aceh Province, on the northern tip of Sumatra, with orders to accept the surrender of separatists who choose to give up or eliminate those who continue to resist.

The offensive began on Monday after the government gave up on a five-month ceasefire because the rebels refused to renounce their claim for independence and surrender their weapons. Troops staged grand displays of military bravado -- parachuting into relatively safe areas and using bombers to blow up empty huts.

By yesterday, as events in Jeumpa, near the town of Bireuen, demonstrated, the emerging conflict was proving to be a very different, uglier battle than the military spin doctors' ideal of carefully orchestrated and controlled encounters.

In two days of fighting, unidentified gunmen have launched hit-and-run raids on 184 schools, according to the education authorities, burning one or two buildings in each location and sometimes the whole complex, but not harming anyone.

"They're cowards. They never stay and fight," the special forces driver said as he took a breather outside State Junior High School 3, after his sergeant accepted that the perpetrators had fled.

"They," according to the government, are up to 5,000 fighters for the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), the separatists who have been fighting for an independent state since 1976 after becoming disillusioned with Jakarta's decades of broken promises of greater autonomy.

In a taste of what might come, other "government" targets have been hit in addition to schools. "I've just walked past a bombed irrigation gate," a woman in a Bireuen cafe said. "Many, many hectares of paddy fields are now flooded waist-deep. All the crops are ruined."

So far only a handful of people have been killed. One of the passengers in the burnt bus in Jeumpa said the gunmen -- fluent Acehnese speakers and almost certainly rebels -- courteously ordered all the passengers out before shooting at the tires and setting the vehicle on fire.

GAM is vehemently denying it has attacked schools and is blaming small military operations units.

The Jeumpa gang were either careless or unlucky. A few minutes after the special forces gave up looking for them, one of the seven paramilitary policemen who'd joined the soldiers in the hunt for the school arsonists spotted figures moving from house to house a few hundred metres away across the paddy fields.

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