Thu, May 15, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Tensions mount in Aceh province

BUILDUP A five-month-old peace agreement seems close to unraveling after thousands of troops arrived in the restive province to put down a separatist movement


An Indonesian marine points his rifle from his amphibious armored vehicle on patrol near the Arun LNG plant near Lhokseumawe City in Aceh province yesterday.


Hundreds of Indonesian troops patrolled the restive province of Aceh yesterday, a day before the government was expected to announce a major crackdown on separatist rebels.

The Free Aceh Movement ignored a government deadline to disarm by Monday, drop its long-held claims of independence for the province and accept a regional autonomy package. They have said they were prepared to fight and resume a 26-year conflict that already has killed nearly 12,000 people.

But the rebels and international negotiators said there was still room for compromise and efforts continued to salvage a five-month-old peace agreement.

"Both leaders are open still leaving the door open for dialogue," said David Gorman from the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Center, which brokered the agreement and is in Aceh. "We hope that we can avert a return to hostilities. We're going to stay here until all options are exhausted."

The two sides signed a peace agreement Dec. 9 but the pact has unraveled in recent weeks. Rebels last week issued a statement calling on fighters to return to their bases and international peace monitors were relocated Monday to nearby Medan as a precaution.

Gorman said the 53 Thai, Filipino and Norwegian monitors were expected to leave for their respective countries yesterday. Their replacements would wait until the two sides settle their differences, he said.

Indonesia has 25,000-30,000 troops in the oil- and gas-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra and more than 6,000 others arrived Tuesday on a nearby island. An army spokesman said they were "waiting for the green light" to enter Aceh.

Rebel forces are estimated at 3,000-5,000 fighters.

Security Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono predicted Tuesday that President Megawati Sukarnoputri would authorize a security operation this week.

"We plan to meet with Parliament Thursday and explain how we think the Aceh problem should be solved," he said.

Since Tuesday, witnesses reported seeing trucks full of soldiers driving through the provincial capital of Banda Aceh. Nervous residents feared the worst, though clashes between rebels and the military were minimal.

Justice Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra has said senior security ministers also recommended the president impose martial law in Aceh for six months. This would empower the army to declare curfews and impose other tough measures, such as news blackouts.

Mediators said the rebels might accept provincial autonomy rather than outright independence. But they said the rebels were adamant about not disarming until the army withdraws to defensive positions as required by the pact.

The agreement was signed with much fanfare, and in its first few months effectively ended the civil war.

But violence has intensified in the past two months, with both sides accusing the other of violating the agreement. The government says rebels have used the halt in fighting to promote independence, while the rebels accuse the military of attacking supporters of the pact.

Talks aimed at salvaging the agreement have been repeatedly delayed as the two sides bickered over times and locations.

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