Thu, May 22, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Land battle begins in Aceh, 13 die

MAYHEM After yesterday's airstrikes by the government, troops engaged with special forces patrolling sub-districts

AP , BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA

Indonesian soldiers wait in in their trucks after patrolling the sub-district of Peusangan outside Bieruen in Aceh yesterday. Indonesia has sent elite military and police reinforcements to parts of Aceh province where the government says nearly 200 schools have been torched by separatist rebels, an officer reported yesterday.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Fierce fighting between separatist rebels and the military in Indo-nesia's Aceh province killed 13 people yesterday on the third day of a major army offensive, a rebel spokesman said.

Tengku Agam, spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement, known by its Indonesian acronym GAM, said the 13, including 10 civilians, were killed during an attack about 2km east of the northern Acehnese town of Bireun.

A military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Firdaus Komarno, confirmed an operation was under way in the region but would not give details on casualties.

"The military are coming out in big numbers on land on sea. Ten civilians along with two unarmed rebels and one government soldier were killed," Agam said.

Azhari, a local Red Cross volunteer who like many Indonesians uses a single name, said he heard that at least 10 people were killed.

"But we cannot yet reach the area because heavy fighting is still underway," Azhari said.

The reported fighting is the bloodiest yet since Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law and an all-out military offensive in Aceh after weekend peace talks in Tokyo broke down.

Before yesterday's clash, troops had killed at least 12 rebels since the offensive began.

Unidentified men have also torched more than 150 schools since the beginning of the campaign, Indonesia's largest offensive since it invaded East Timor in 1975. Both sides have accused each other of carrying out the burnings.

Earlier yesterday, Aceh military commander Major General Endang Suwarya said an unspecified number of troops were moving into the northern rebel strongholds of Bireun and Pidie, which have seen the worst fighting and arson.

"We need to take urgent steps," he said.

Northern Aceh is home to several natural gas fields tapped by US oil giant ExxonMobil, though production has so far been unaffected by the fighting.

Suwarya said authorities were considering imposing a night curfew in the two districts.

At least 12,000 people -- many of them civilians caught in the crossfire -- have been killed in the province, 900km northwest of Jakarta, since 1976.

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 the province of 4.3 million people.

The resumption of hostilities has alarmed world leaders, who have urged Indonesia to restart talks with the rebels, though none have criticized Jakarta's hardline stance.

In a joint statement, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and visiting Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said they regretted the breakdown of a Dec. 9 peace accord.

"We urge both the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement to return quickly to the negotiating table," they said. "We call on the Indonesian Armed Forces to ensure full respect for human rights and to show maximum restraint while they carry out operations in Aceh."

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

Pictures of razed schools in the province dominated the front pages of newspapers across Indonesia yesterday. Most repeated military claims the rebels were behind the arson attacks, the motives for which remain unclear.

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