Indonesia cracks down in Aceh

Adnan's body was virtually unrecognisable when they brought it home to his widow's wooden shack. His arms and face were horribly slashed, and his penis had been cut off. His three children ran away, unable to bear the sight of the man who was once their father.

Even if his fellow villagers had not seen the three truckloads of soldiers draw up, they would have known who was responsible. The Indonesian army (TNI) likes to leave its signature on the bodies of suspected members of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) after killing them.

What took place in Geunteng on Friday is being repeated daily across Indonesia's Aceh province as security forces mount a crackdown to wipe out the separatist movement once and for all.

For 27 years, GAM has been fighting for independence for the region on the northern tip of Sumatra island. Last December, after lengthy negotiations, it signed a peace deal with Jakarta that appeared to herald a new era of hope. But GAM clung to its secessionist goal, both sides refused to disarm and the bullet-ridden bodies began turning up in the paddy fields once again.

Now 45,000 soldiers and military police are facing a poorly armed force of 5,000 guerrillas in a conflict that President Megawati Sukarnoputri is determined to win. For the Aceh insurgency is not only an affront to her deep-seated nationalism, it threatens the very integrity of the Indonesian archipelago. East Timor broke away four years ago. If the separatist yearnings of Aceh and other restive provinces are not quashed, saypessimists, the world's largest Muslim country could disintegrate like Yugoslavia.

TNI's offensive, launched last week, is Indonesia's largest military operation since it invaded East Timor in 1975. But for ordinary Acehnese, it means more of the same: a life of fear, caught between a rebel army that hides in their midst and a security force notorious for its ruthlessness and brutality.

What happened in Geunteng, a dusty coastal village in Pidie province, is contested. The area is a known GAM stronghold and military authorities say they killed three suspected guerrillas in a gunfight on a rusty suspension bridge on Friday. Villagers say the three were fishermen who may have been helping GAM - but only under duress.

Adnan's widow, Habsah, buried her face in a pink scarf as she recalled the events of 36 hours earlier. "Suddenly my husband was brought home dead," she said. "He wasn't a GAM member. But if GAM ask him to do something, he has to do it, otherwise something bad will happen to him."

Mistreated by both sides, villagers fear the military more - the legacy of years of repression. They dread the periodic appearance of TNI soldiers demanding to know the whereabouts of rebels.

Six months ago soldiers went to a neighbouring village, lined up locals and shot dead a teenage boy and a pregnant woman. Such incidents help to explain GAM's popular support in some districts.

But the Acehnese also genuinely aspire to be masters of their own destiny. Aceh, a resource-rich province that was once an independent sultanate, never accepted Dutch colonial rule. The latest civil war began after Jakarta reneged on a promise of autonomy following Indonesia's declaration of independence.

Nordin, a Geunteng elder, said: "In our deep hearts we want our freedom, we want a referendum like East Timor. We want to be independent."

Clashes since 1976 have claimed 12,000 lives, and that figure looks set to rise steeply. The military claims to have killed 58 rebels in the past week, while GAM says it has killed 43 police and soldiers. Few people believe the military offensive will be effective. The guerrillas may be vastly outnumbered, but they can retreat to bases in the thickly forested hills or melt into the rural population.

That means many civilian deaths as they are hunted down - and yet another spiral of violence and resentment.

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