Indonesia's military said yesterday it has now killed 31 rebels during an all-out attack on separatist guerrillas in Aceh Province and the government denied that civilians are among the dead.
Two Free Aceh Movement (GAM) members died in a firefight with troops early yesterday in North Aceh and two were captured, said military spokesman Yani Basuki, on the fifth day of the country's biggest military operation for a quarter-century.
Martial law administrator Major General Endang Suwarya had Thursday night put the rebel death toll at 29 and said the military suffered one death in a landing craft accident.
The military, which has a record of gross rights abuses in past campaigns in Aceh and elsewhere, has denied reports by villagers that 10 people gunned down on Wednesday in the northern coastal district of Bireuen were farmers.
Basuki said Thursday the victims, including a boy aged 13, had fired on troops and were shot while fleeing. He acknowledged no rebel guns were found but said GAM customarily dumped weapons while fleeing.
GAM, which has also been accused of brutalities during its 27-year fight for independence, said in a statement in Jakarta that troops had killed 50 civilians as of Thursday evening.
No independent confirmation was possible.
Asked about GAM allegations of civilian deaths, Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda told reporters: "It's just part of their tactics.
"Before it was clear that they were wearing military uniform complete with their red berets but now they disappear and are not wearing military uniform any more and when they get shot they claim they are civilians," Wirayuda said.
"Don't be fooled by such allegations and the media should not be lured into spreading them," he said.
The GAM statement said rebels attacked a military position at Lhoknga in Aceh Besar district late Thursday. There was no immediate confirmation.
GAM said troops at Ujong Pancu in Aceh Besar on Thursday had used civilians as human shields in front of a patrol, an allegation hotly denied by military spokesman Basuki.
"It is not true. TNI [the military] came to Aceh to protect their people," he said.
Indonesia launched its operation following the breakdown of last-ditch weekend peace talks with GAM in Tokyo.
Up to 30,000 troops plus 10,000 police, backed up by warships and planes, are confronting some 5,000 guerrillas. No full-scale pitched battles have been reported so far.
Civilians, as always, have been the first to suffer.
Authorities say some 100,000 children have nowhere to learn after GAM torched some 287 schools this week. Tents are being sent to the province on Sumatra island for use as temporary classrooms.
The rebels say the army is behind the arson attacks to try to smear GAM.