Thu, May 29, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Aceh offensive breeds chaos, fear


An Indonesian soldier patrols the village of Nisam in Aceh on Tuesday. Indonesia has military and police forces of more than 40,000 facing 5,000 guerrilla-style fighters of the Free Aceh Movement.


The Indonesian military says it is trying to help Aceh's 4 million people by imposing martial law and launching a land, sea and air offensive to crush separatist rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

But less than two weeks after the launch of the operation, it has brought only heartbreak and fear for many Acehnese.

"We are anxious and on edge," a transportation worker said. "We are at a loss what to do."

In the village of Cot Batee last week, the air smelt of disinfectant in an open-sided room where women grieved over the bodies of six young men. Residents alleged they were killed by troops.

One woman quietly sang a Muslim prayer as she sat on the floor among the corpses, some covered with cloth and others still being cleansed before burial.

Villagers allege civilians have been killed during the assault while the army says it targets only GAM members.

The six men in Cot Batee died during a hunt for rebels near Bireuen town on May 21.

Mansurni, 24, had his right eye blown out. Ismiyadi, 27, also lost an eye, had an injury to his mouth and a hole in the right side of his neck.

Residents said the victims were farmers and denied they belonged to GAM. Soldiers took the men away and killed them, they said. The army denies this.

Lieutenant Colonel Yani Basuki, spokesman for the military operation, said information like that from the "community" must be viewed with caution.

"Which community are you talking about? There are two kinds: those who become spies for GAM and those who are neutral," he said.

In Cot Batee, two young men on motorcycles were seen riding through the village encouraging residents to shout "Freedom."

At slick press briefings complete with maps and charts the military has reported numerous firefights. Almost 80 rebels were reported killed as of late Tuesday.

Claims and counter-claims on civilian casualties are increasingly difficult for foreign journalists to verify. The military last week blocked access to certain villages.

Basuki said recently that the military does not forbid foreign journalists from moving freely but is concerned about their safety.

A bullet fired by unknown gunmen struck an Indonesian television crew's car on a back road near Bireuen town. Gunfire erupted as a journalist's car passed fields just outside Sigli town on a separate occasion.

Acehnese have been living with the sound of shooting for 27 years since GAM was formed.

Operating amid lush green foliage the soldiers wear bright red and white neckerchiefs in the colors of the Indonesian flag.

GAM has also been accused of grave human rights abuses and of profiting from illegal businesses like marijuana. One security specialist has said rebels were "certainly" behind the torching of more than 300 schools, leaving many children studying among the ashes.

But the military are clearly feared in some districts.

"We can't talk any more because the security forces have come," a resident near Bireuen told reporters last week as a patrol approached.

Many Acehnese complain of decades of broken promises by the central government.

"We are married but our wife is always rude, so we want a divorce," is how one man described the relationship.

But what they want most of all, he said, is peace.

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