Wed, May 28, 2003 - Page 5 News List

At least 76 rebels dead, Indonseian military claims

AFP , BANDA ACEH, INDONESIA

Indonesia's armed forces said yesterday that 76 separatist rebels have now been killed in Aceh province in the military's biggest operation for a quarter-century.

As the assault went into its ninth day, the military repeated denials that seven people killed in a shooting incident last week had been civilians.

The operation's spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Yani Basuki said two more Free Aceh Movement (GAM) members were killed yesterday morning in West Aceh, bringing the total to 76.

Security forces in Medan in neighboring North Sumatra province had arrested a local GAM commander from North Aceh who had fled to the city, he said.

Local and international rights groups have criticised the conduct of the offensive.

Amnesty International, in a weekend report, said grave human-rights abuses including the killing of children and other civilians were already being reported.

The military last week set up an investigation, involving soldiers and two local journalists, into reports by international media from a cluster of villages in the Bireuen district.

Residents of Matang Mamplam said that troops on Sept. 21 shot dead seven young men including a boy aged 12 near the village. Residents said the victims were farmers.

"The conclusion of the investigation is that all seven people, based on available eyewitnesses, were GAM members," Basuki said.

A woman called Anizar had tsaid last week her 18-year-old brother Khairurazzy Ismail was among those killed. She was not described as an eyewitness in the report.

The military also said at the time that the victims were GAM members who were shot following an armed clash. Anizar appeared yesterday at a press conference at military headquarters in Lhokseumawe city. She said she had not seen the shooting but to the best of her knowledge her brother had not been a GAM member.

The operation's commander Brigadier General Bambang Darmono, at the press conference described the media reports as a "provocation" and criticised Koran Tempo newspaper for carrying them.

The investigation report says about 90 troops approached the village around dawn. Two GAM members were shot when they ran away and refused an order to halt.

It says the bodies of 10 rebels in all were found after a 90-minute gunfight.

The military says it is stepping up attacks on GAM in the northern districts of Bireuen and Pidie, East Aceh and Aceh Besar around the provincial capital.

It said air strikes would be launched if guerrillas hold the high ground or are massed in greater strength than troops.

Up to 40,000 police and soldiers are confronting an estimated 5,000 rebels from GAM.

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