Rebels hide in crowd to attack army

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SEPARATIST GUERRILLAS in Aceh used a human shield of local civilians to attack an army post yesterday as fighting continued in the northern Indonesian province.

Seven Indonesian marines were injured after the attack by guerrillas hiding among a crowd of hundreds of locals.

"They mobilised the civilians and made them their shield before they started to attack," said Colonel Masril Mansyur, the local marine commander of the northern Aceh base.

At least five people have been killed over the past two days in what has become the most bloody and threatening of Indonesia's many regional disputes. The position in Aceh has deteriorated from intermittent violence to a state of low-level war, with killings, burnings and acts of terror almost every day.

Four hours after the incident at the army base, the bodies of four men, said to have been abducted from their village on Monday by men in military uniforms, were found with their throats cut, according to a local human rights campaigner. In the southern part of the province, a soldier was shot and killed by an unidentified gunman and there was an attack on a police station in the east, but no reports of casualties.

The attacks are believed to be the work of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), a guerrilla army fighting for an independent Aceh. Ever since the days of Dutch colonialism, Muslim warriors have struggled to control the area's rich natural resources and its strategic proximity to Malaysia, Thailand, and the Straits of Malacca, one of the world's busiest sea lanes.

Since the fall of President Suharto last year their movement has become confident and frustrated in equal measure. Later this month, Indonesia's other separatist province, East Timor, will hold a referendum on independence or autonomy within Indonesia. But no mainstream politicians in Jakarta have supported such a concession for Aceh, and anger about the exploitation of the province's oil and gas wealth is increasing.

"East Timor is just like Puerto Rico," the Indonesian President, B J Habibie, said recently. Unlike the rest of the country, East Timor was a Portuguese colony until Indonesia annexed it in 1975. "Aceh is just like, for the United States, Georgia. You cannot separate Georgia."

Fighting between the GAM and the Indonesian army has created some 150,000 refugees, and international human rights groups have alleged atrocities on both sides. Fear of violence has brought much economic activity to a standstill.

n About 100 prison inmates escaped from an Ujung Padang jail in South Sulawesi yesterday after setting it ablaze. The prisons were protesting against alleged government unfairness in handing out reductions in jail terms to celebrate the country's independence anniversary.

Police had to fire warning shots but were unable to prevent hundreds of the protesting prisoners from escaping.

Colonel Boedihardjo, chief of the local police, said five had been recaptured and about 300 inmates had been evacuated. He said efforts were still under way to evacuate the remaining 190 inmates.

Boedihardjo was not yet able to estimate the number of escapers, but one of the evacuees said about 100 had fled.

Irsan, one of the five captured, said the incident began when a fellow prisoner complained about what he called the government's unfairness in the reduction of prison terms.

Indonesia yesterday celebrated the 54th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Dutch colonial rule.