Police find mass grave in Aceh as tension increases

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Indonesian police said yesterday that they had unearthed a mass grave in the rebellious province of Aceh where guerrillas are showing signs of stepping up their violence despite new peace overtures from Jakarta.

Police also said that at least 15 bomb blasts shook the local capital of Banda Aceh on Thursday on the eve of Indonesia's independence day celebrations. No injuries were reported.

The discovery of the mass grave was revealed shortly after President Megawati Sukarnoputri apologised to the province for decades of human rights abuses. However, at the same time she ruled out independence for the resource-rich province at the northern end of the island of Sumatra.

"The police and military searched for the mass grave after we received information. We found 48 bodies. They are all badly decomposed," a spokesman for Aceh police said. The bodies, found near a village called Lhong in the west of the province, appeared to be those of civilians and security forces killed by separatist guerrillas some time ago, said police.

Rebels in the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been fighting for decades to end often-brutal rule from Jakarta, denied involvement.

"It's just another ploy by the military. The bodies were civilians abducted and executed by the Indonesian military. We have nothing to do with them," said Abu Sofyan, a GAM official.

President Megawati plans to visit the Sumatran province early next month to try to find a way of ending the violence. However, she has made clear that greater autonomy, rather than complete independence, is what is on offer. Reporters travelling south along the eastern side of the province said tension was apparent immediately on leaving the provincial capital. Locals often complained about being forced to fly the Indonesian flag.

"We appear to be in the eye of the storm," said one businessman who works for a company with major investments in the province. He warned that the conflict seemed to be getting worse.

He said that, with President Megawati's refusal to budge on independence, rebels may be trying to goad the Indonesian military into committing atrocities in the hope of winning international support.

But, unlike East Timor where Indonesian rule was never recognised by the United Nations and which split from Jakarta two years ago, Aceh is firmly part of the country as far as the rest of the world is concerned.

Indonesia's strongest diplomatic card is that losing Aceh could cause the archipelago to collapse and unleash instability throughout south-east Asia. Human rights groups say that at least 1,500 people, mainly civilians, have been killed in Aceh since January.