Indonesian attack planes fired rockets yesterday at a rebel base in Aceh province, signaling the start of a major military offensive just hours after the breakdown of peace talks in Tokyo and the imposition of martial law.
The military said it parachuted hundreds of soldiers into the province and moved 15 warships into the area to "strike and paralyze" the Acehnese rebels in what was expected to be Indonesia's biggest military operation since its invasion of East Timor in 1975.
The talks in Tokyo fell apart when the rebels rejected Jakarta's demands to lay down their weap-ons, drop their independence bid and accept regional autonomy. The rebels vowed to resist any attack by the military and to fight on for independence.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed a decree late Sunday authorizing war in the oil and gas-rich province and imposing martial law. It gave the military sweeping powers to make arrests, impose curfews and curb travel. The military immediately arrested five senior rebels.
Yesterday, Indonesian planes fired rockets at a rebel stronghold about 20km east of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, said Major-General Erwin Sujono.
"The offensive has begun," Sujono said in Banda Aceh.
He added that 15 warships had moved into waters close to the northern town of Lhokseumawe, an area with a heavy concentration of rebels.
Added Indonesian military Chief General Endriartono Sutarto: "I have ordered soldiers to hunt for those [rebels] who refuse to surrender ... hunt for them and destroy them to their roots."
Military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Firdaus Kormano said, "We are ready to ambush, to strike and paralyze the rebels."
There are more than 30,000 government troops in Aceh, up against about 5,000 poorly armed rebels.
Yesterday's attack signaled a return to military confrontation following a Dec. 9 peace agreement between the government and the Free Aceh Movement that raised hopes for a breakthrough in one of Asia's longest running separatist conflicts.
The accord unraveled in recent months following violence by both sides and mutual recriminations.
More than 12,000 people have died in fighting since 1976 in the province, 1,900km northwest of Jakarta, amid accusations of atrocities on both sides.
A body with gunshot wounds was found near Banda Aceh yesterday while in northern Aceh unidentified gunmen fatally shot a man riding a motorbike with his wife. The circumstances surrounding both deaths were unclear.
Earlier yesterday, hundreds of troops parachuted into the province in a show of force. Six C-130 Hercules transport aircraft released 458 soldiers over an airstrip close to Banda Aceh.
Yesterday's attack using US-made OV-10 Bronco attack planes was the first time in several years that the military has used air-to-surface missiles in Aceh. It was unclear if there were any casualties in the attack, which the military said targeted an alleged rebel weapons cache.
The government estimated that the number of refugees in Aceh will balloon to 100,000 from the current 5,000.
"The government has prepared medical supplies, clothing, sheets, food, rice, 4,000 tents and medicines," Social Affairs Minister Bachtiar Chamsyah said.
Deva Rachman, a spokeswoman for US energy giant ExxonMobil, which operates extensive natural gas fields in Aceh, said that, despite the hostilities, "production has been unaffected."