Indonesia launches military assault against Aceh rebels

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The Independent Online

The Indonesian government declared war on separatist rebels in Aceh province yesterday, sending planes and troops to crush the 27-year-old independence movement.

The military offensive, authorised just after midnight by presidential decree, is expected to be the largest since Indonesia invaded East Timor in 1975. It follows the breakdown of talks in Tokyo between the Indonesian government and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Just hours after President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed a decree imposing martial war in the province, warplanes fired rockets at a rebel stronghold east of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. Fifteen warships moved into waters close to the northern town of Lhokseumawe, an area with a large concentration of rebels, and hundreds of troops were parachuted in to join a force of more than 30,000 already on the ground.

More paratroopers dropped into the area today, as officials in Washington and other capitals urged Jakarta to restart autonomy talks with the rebels. Five rebels were killed and seven captured yesterday.

President Megawati is determined to avoid losing another chunk of Indonesian territory after the ballot that granted independence to East Timor in 1999. She also wants to allay fears that the Indonesian archipelago is in danger of disintegrating as a result of ethnic and religious strife.

Human rights groups fear civilian casualties are inevitable as the military pursues its declared aim to "strike and paralyse" the GAM rebels, and even the government has predicted that the fighting will create 100,000 refugees.

The government has been threatening all-out war for weeks, as a peace agreement signed in December unravelled. The deal was hailed as Aceh's best chance for peace in decades, but the past two months have seen violations by both sides and violence has steadily increased.

The Indonesian military chief, General Endriartono Sutarto, said yesterday that the offensive was aimed at neutralising GAM, which has about 5,000 poorly armed rebels. "I have ordered soldiers to hunt for those [rebels] who refuse to surrender ... and destroy them to their roots," he said.

More than 12,000 people have died in fighting since 1976 in the staunchly Muslim province on the island of Sumatra, 1,200 miles north-west of Jakarta. Both the military and GAM have been accused of extortion and atrocities.

Yesterday a body riddled with gunshot wounds was found near Banda Aceh, while unidentified gunmen shot dead a man riding a motorbike with his wife in northern Aceh. The circumstances surrounding both incidents were unclear.

The air strikes, the first in the province for several years, were clearly designed as a show of force. US-made OV-10 Bronco attack planes fired air-to-surface missiles, targeting what the military said was a weapons cache in the rebel base. Nearly 500 soldiers were parachuted on to an airstrip close to Banda Aceh from six C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

GAM leader, Malik Mahmud, said the Indonesian government had been "looking for a way to declare war" and pledged that the rebels would offer all-out resistance. "We will fight for independence," he said.

Shortly after martial law was declared, armed officers marched into a hotel in Banda Aceh where five rebel leaders were staying and took them to regional police headquarters. Colonel Surya Darma, Aceh's chief police detective, said they had been officially named as suspects in a series of recent bomb attacks in Indonesia.

Last weekend's talks in Tokyo - hastily arranged under pressure from international donors including Japan and the United States - collapsed after the rebels rejected a government ultimatum to lay down their arms, drop their demands for independence and accept an offer of regional autonomy.