The Indonesian military has launched an operation on an alleged rebel stronghold in Aceh province despite an informal cease-fire after a barrage of automatic gunfire rang out near an Indonesian relief camp for tsunami survivors.
Military commanders say they have been forced to act against rebels who are threatening the delivery of aid to disaster victims, although the rebels have repeatedly denied attacking aid workers. The rebels also accuse the military of fabricating claims against them as an excuse to impose security measures on the thousands of relief workers operating in the region.
Sporadic clashes between government forces and rebels who want independence for northern Sumatra's Aceh province have been reported since a massive earthquake and tsunami lashed the region on Dec. 26, though both sides say they won't fight during the emergency.
Rebels and the Indonesian army both have declared cease-fires to assist the humanitarian effort. The military and rebels say they plan peace talks by month's end, but no dates have been set or other details announced.
On Thursday, a reporter and photographer were in a refugee camp in Lambreh, about 32km from the provincial capital of Aceh, when four bursts of gunfire erupted from nearby hills.
Refugees at the camp, home to about 200 survivors, dove for cover, screamed and recited Muslim prayers. Neither the rebels nor soldiers were visible from the camp during the shooting.
Nobody at the camp was injured and the shooting did not appear to be directed at the refugees.
It was not clear who fired the shots, but Major Benny Suharto, a local commander, said the military had been conducting an operation in the hills.
"It's a rebel stronghold. We held an operation because the rebels were making trouble," he said. He refused to provide further details.
Rebel spokesman Tengku Muharram said he was not aware of Thursday's incident. He said the military often shoots in the air to provoke his men to shoot back. But after the tsunami, the rebels have not launched attacks and only returned fire in self defense.
"I told my men not to take the bait. And we only shoot in self defense," Muharram said. "This is a time of tragedy for the Acehnese."
Separately Thursday, Indonesia's army chief of staff claimed troops had killed at least 120 separatist rebels in the past two weeks in Aceh province, despite the informal ceasefire.