Villagers flee from military campaign against Aceh rebels

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The Independent Online

Aceh was ablaze yesterday, and no one would own up to it. Security forces and separatist rebels traded blame after dozens of schools were burnt down in the Indonesian province and 17 civilians were allegedly killed in the crossfire.

Villagers fled their homes as the schools were torched on the second day of a military offensive ordered by Megawati Sukarnoputri, the Indonesian President. Hundreds more troops were parachuted into the staunchly Muslim region, increasing the total number of soldiers and police on the ground to about 40,000.

With Aceh under martial law, military commanders have been given sweeping powers. General Endriartono Sutarto, the army chief, ordered his men to fight rebel forces "until your last drop of blood". "You must chase and wipe out GAM [the rebel army]," he told 200 officers in battledress in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. "Just finish them off. You only have one job: destroy them."

The crackdown follows the collapse of a peace agreement aimed at ending nearly three decades of hostilities in the province on the northern tip of Sumatra island. There was a brief lull after the deal was signed last December, but both sides refused to disarm and last-ditch peace talks in Tokyo last weekend broke down.

As usual in such operations, civilians are bearing the brunt. People fled and cowered behind pushcarts as fighting flared near the city of Lhokseumawe yesterday. Villagers near the northern town of Bireun found the corpse of a 60-year-old councillor who police said had been shot by rebels.

A nine-year-old girl called Chaerani wandered through the blackened ruins of her school on the outskirts of Banda Aceh. "Everything now scares me," she said. "GAM. Soldiers. Police." One mother said: "We all cried when we realised the school had been reduced to ashes. Why should anyone attack a school?"

GAM claimed that 17 civilians had died in sporadic fighting. "People were shot and then even burnt," said a spokesman, Sofyan Daud.

The army denied any involvement in civilian deaths, saying 12 rebels had been killed or captured and four soldiers injured. General Sutarto sought to allay fears of human rights abuses, ordering his officers to shoot soldiers in the head if they acted illegally. Police in Bireuen district accused GAM of burning down schools in an attempt to discredit the military.

The international community responded with dismay to the resumption of fighting, with the United States, Australia and the United Nations urging the parties to return to the negotiating table. "It's our judgement that the possible avenues to a peaceful resolution were not fully explored at the Tokyo conference," said a US State Department spokesman.

The military says the campaign will be over in six months, although previous crackdowns have failed to eradicate GAM and observers say there will be no lasting resolution without a political framework. More than 12,000 people have died in Aceh since 1976, with both sides accused of committing atrocities.

Mr Daud said: "We have withdrawn our forces to bases in the hills. It's going to be a drawn-out war. The wounds will hurt for a long time and create a new generation of rebels."

President Megawati said she had ordered the operation with a "heavy heart": "I hope this action will be understood and supported by all the Indonesian people, including those groups working for democracy and human rights."