Indonesia's military yesterday denied that it was targeting civilians in its weeklong battle with insurgents in Aceh, while Australia's foreign minister warned that a rebel victory could possibly trigger the breakup of the world's fourth most populous nation.
Such an eventuality would lead to a "disastrous security situation" in southeast Asia, Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said.
"My concern is that if Indonesia as a state gradually broke up ... it would set in place a chain reaction," he said. "It would set people against people in the region, possibly having quite direct international implications."
Speaking in an interview on Australian Broadcasting Corp television, Downer said Canberra supports "the territorial integrity of Indonesia" and hoped the Aceh dispute could be solved through dialogue.
More than 30,000 Indonesian troops are fighting some 5,000 poorly armed rebels, a majority who have either retreated into the jungles or melted into the civilian population.
Since the offensive was launched, the Indonesian Red Cross says that it has recovered between 70 and 80 corpses. The military says 58 guerillas have been killed. Rebels say 12 of their fighters and 53 civilians have been killed.
Independent verification of those numbers was impossible because international monitors have left the country.
Villagers said yesterday that soldiers executed an 18-year-old civilian man during an interrogation of nine people who had been sleeping in a mosque in the northwestern district of Bireun.
"They woke us up at 6am and started questioning us on the whereabouts of the rebels," said one villager, Marsuni, who was lying in bed with a swollen face and arms, the result of soldiers allegedly beating him.
The military denied the claim. On Thursday, it also denied it had killed 10 civilians -- including two 12-year-old boys -- during a raid on a village in the same area.
"It is not true. I have not received such reports," military operation spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Yani Basuki said yesterday. "The Indonesian military is committed to protecting civilians."
More than 10,000 Acehnese have also fled their homes, seeking refuge in mosques and schools.
The military has accused the rebels of burning hundreds of schools and attacking trucks transporting food into the province. In the face of skyrocketing prices and UN warnings of a "grave humanitarian crisis" in Aceh, the military on Saturday began providing armed patrols to food trucks.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said yesterday it sent a letter to Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, expressing "alarm" at the military's efforts to control press coverage and urging her to direct it to respect press freedoms and cease all efforts to curb the media.
Journalists say the military has demanded that reporters stop quoting rebels and threatened legal action against any publication that runs unsubstantiated reports of military abuses. It also called on them to alter their reports to reflect a pro-Indonesian stance.
Reporters have also come under fire, with gunmen shooting at a private Metro-TV station car on Saturday, according to witnesses. No one was injured.
"The policies ... put journalists covering the conflict at grave risk," the committee's executive director Ann Cooper said.