| An Acehnese boy in the village of Bireuen on Tuesday. (AFP)
Banda Aceh, May 20 (Reuters): Indonesian troops parachuted into central Aceh province today and patrols fanned out in search of rebels on the second day of a military offensive aimed at crushing a 27-year-old rebellion.
Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels, who number about 5,000 and demand independence, said 17 civilians had been killed in sporadic fighting so far. Indonesia’s military said it had killed four rebels, while four soldiers had been wounded.
At least 40 schools have been torched since yesterday when Indonesia launched its military offensive, one of its largest in decades, in the resource-rich province of about four million people. President Megawati Sukarnoputri has vowed to keep ethnically diverse Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, unified and this war has been seen as a key test of that pledge.
Indonesian military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto warned rebels they would be “wiped out”. The separatists have vowed to fight forever.
“You must chase and wipe out GAM...you are trained to kill, so wipe them out,” Sutarto told 200 military officers in battle dress in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.
But seeking to allay fears among this staunchly Muslim province’s population that troops would abuse civilians as in past operations, Sutarto ordered his officers to shoot their own men in the heads if they did.
The international community responded with dismay to renewed fighting after the collapse of a five-month-old peace pact, fearing heavy casualties. The US, Australia and the UN urged a return to the negotiating table.
GAM has demanded independence since 1976 in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people, most of them civilians. Hundreds of troops parachuted into the region around Takengon in central Aceh, where troops want to secure an airfield.
Besides saying troops were on patrol in various parts of Aceh — it was unclear if they had encountered resistance — military officials declined to give many details of the operations.
Casualty claims and counter-claims moved into higher gear. A GAM spokesman said 17 civilians had been killed since the war began. He said the rebels had suffered no losses.
“People were shot and then even burned. Many houses have been burned as well,” said Sofyan Dawood. The military accused GAM of burning down at least 20 schools and denied any involvement in civilian deaths. Dawood denied GAM had torched schools.
Local television showed footage of fire razing four schools in a town near the industrial city of Lhokseumawe as fighting raged nearby. Civilians cowed behind push carts or fled.
Picking through the blackened ruins of one torched school on the outskirts of Banda Aceh, nine-year-old Chaerani grappled with what had happened. “Everything now scares me. GAM. Soldiers. Police. I just want to go back to school,” she said.
President Sukarnoputri ordered the offensive after last-ditch peace talks in Tokyo collapsed. Mediators have blamed Jakarta for the failed weekend talks, saying the government came with additional conditions that made dialogue impossible. Jakarta had insisted the rebels explicitly give up their demands for independence.
With 45,000 troops and police on the ground, top generals hope the campaign will take no longer than six months, even though the armed forces have failed in previous campaigns to eradicate GAM.
Witnesses in Banda Aceh and Lhokseumawe said civilian life appeared normal today, as people went about their business and Aceh’s ubiquitous roadside coffee houses opened as usual.
Indonesia's Aceh campaign will be one of the biggest since the 1975 invasion of East Timor, which marked its first year of independence on Tuesday. Unlike East Timorese rebels, GAM has no diplomatic support for its independence claims.
Aceh is one of two separatist hot spots in Indonesia. The other is Papua province in the far east.