Mon, May 19, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Troops ready to strike Aceh Province

END GAME Last-gasp talks continued in Japan but Indonesian officials said the rebels must accept a plan to put down their weapons or face war

AP , BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA

Rebel negotiator for the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM), Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba, left, talks on his mobile phone with GAM delagates in Tokyo at the Kuala Tripa hotel in Banda Aceh yesterday. Separatist fighters in Indonesia's troubled Aceh Province said yesterday they were prepared to conditionally give up arms one day after Jakarta warned the rebel group to abandon their struggle for independence or face war.

PHOTO: AFP

While the government and rebels held last-minute talks in Japan to save a faltering truce in Aceh, thousands of troops in the province yesterday were poised to launch a military operation if the discussions fail.

Armored vehicles rumbled through the streets of this provincial capital, while soldiers took up positions at key junctions and corners in the city.

Many people choose to stay at home and wait for word on the talks, which Jakarta said will fail unless the rebels agree to drop their independence demand, accept autonomy and begin immediate disarmament.

The Tokyo meeting is seen as the final chance to avoid a return to open hostilities in of one of Asia's longest running wars, which has killed at least 12,000 people since in 1976.

"These are the final minutes," said Aceh military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Firdaus Komarno. "We are waiting for instructions from Jakarta."

Meanwhile, fresh clashes erupted in several parts of Aceh.

Two unidentified gunmen shot dead a village chief yesterday on the outskirts of the northern town of Lhokseumawe, Komarno said.

Also yesterday, a three-hour gunbattle between the two sides in northern Aceh left a policeman dead, reported Metro TV, which aired 10 minutes of footage of the clashes. On Saturday, troops killed seven suspected rebels in south Aceh, said Komarno.

The talks -- convened only after intense pressure by Indonesia's international donors -- began in Tokyo late Saturday after being delayed several hours. Delegates met face to face yesterday for the first time.

The government has poured thousands of troops into the resource-rich region, 1,770km northwest of Jakarta, in recent weeks, adding to the 30,000 soldiers already stationed there.

They are up against a poorly armed rebel force believed to number around 5,000, most of which have retreated into the jungles and mountains in recent days.

Security Minister Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono told reporters late Saturday in Jakarta that the rebels must accept all the conditions laid down by the government to avoid war.

"If GAM gives no positive response, then integrated operations will begin," he said, referring to the rebels by their Indonesian acronym.

He said the rebels must follow up any agreement in Tokyo by handing over more than 60 percent of its weapons to police in the first month.

In a sign of the obstacles facing delegates in Tokyo, a rebel representative in Banda Aceh said yesterday this demand was "unrealistic."

"GAM has no problem handing over its weapons, but this must occur at the same time as the demilitarization of Aceh," Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba said.

A return to hostilities will likely lead to hundreds of civilian casualties, despite promises by Indonesia's corrupt and poorly trained military that it has learnt from previous bloody excursions into Aceh. Both sides have been accused of committing numerous atrocities.

Amid much fanfare, the Free Aceh Movement and Jakarta signed a cease-fire agreement in Geneva on Dec. 9. The deal initially held, and international monitors flew to the province to oversee the accord.

However, the deal, which envisioned autonomy not independence, quickly fell apart amid repeated violations and a lack of trust on both sides.

Jakarta accused the rebels of using the lull in fighting to campaign for independence, recruit fighters and launch attacks on security forces.

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