Indonesian army ignores ceasefire to attack rebels

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The Independent Online

The Indonesian army has continued to wage a brutal counter-insurgency operation in the devastated province of Aceh, despite an informal ceasefire agreed in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami.

The Indonesian army has continued to wage a brutal counter-insurgency operation in the devastated province of Aceh, despite an informal ceasefire agreed in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami.

Indonesia's army chief of staff yesterday boasted that his soldiers had killed at least 120 separatist rebels in the past fortnight, contradicting previous government claims that thousands of extra troops sent to Aceh were working exclusively on the relief effort.

"In the past two weeks we were forced to kill at least 120 members of GAM (the Free Aceh Movement) and seize their weapons," General Ryamizard Ryacudu said during a visit to the provincial capital Banda Aceh.

Most of the 166,000 people killed when the waves hit Indonesia died in Aceh, the remote province on the northern tip of Sumatra, which has witnessed 30 years of fighting.

An uneasy standoff between the two sides followed the tsunami disaster but there have been sporadic skirmishes since, with reports that rebel fighters have been killed after coming out of hiding to check whether their families were among the survivors.

Refugees on Aceh's tsunami-hit north coast told the Associated Press yesterday that Indonesian troops had fired on a GAM rebel who visited them.

In the hills near Banda Aceh, there was a barrage of automatic gunfire, prompting survivors living in a temporary camp to run for cover. It was unclear who fired the shots, but a local military commander acknowledged an operation was under way in the area to counter rebel activity.

The military has insisted that it has been forced to take action against GAM to ensure that aid is securely delivered to the worst-hit areas.

However, rebel leaders have repeatedly denied attacking aid workers and stated their willingness to enter talks with Jakarta over co-operation in the aid effort. Foreign aid agencies taking part in the enormous relief operation have reported no threats or attacks by separatist fighters, and some have questioned the motives behind the military's insistence on armed escorts when moving outside Banda Aceh.

Aceh was sealed off from the outside world before the tsunami and the Indonesian government showed its reluctance to accept outside involvement in the area when it set a 26 March deadline for foreign troops working in the aid operation to be withdrawn.

US, Australian, Singaporean, Malaysian and other nations' armed forces have supplied helicopters, crews, medical teams and additional aid to the massive relief effort and their presence has been supported by most locals.

"I am very, very grateful for them," Ibrahim, a security guard whose village vanished in the disaster, told Reuters when asked about the huge influx of foreign soldiers and aid workers into Indonesia's most staunchly Muslim province. "I hope they stay longer."

Human rights organisations have documented numerous abuses in the area by Indonesian security forces and their increased presence has fed widespread mistrust and fear.

General Ryacudu's claims are the latest indication of a serious rift between the army and the civilian administration in Jakarta on how to resolve the Aceh issue. Indonesian officials said this week that the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono hoped to launch reconciliation talks with GAM by the end of the month. However, diplomats said that army chiefs, who continue to wield significant power, prefer to maintain a hardline approach, fearing that Aceh, which has important oil and natural gas reserves, could follow the same path to independence trodden by East Timor.

Attempts to reach a negotiated solution collapsed 18 months ago when Jakarta withdrew from talks and sent 40,000 troops to the province to crush a GAM force of 5,000 rebels.