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80 bodies found in Aceh battlegrounds

Banda Aceh (Indonesia), May 24 (Reuters): The Indonesian Red Cross said today it had removed about 80 bodies from battlegrounds in Aceh, the country’s westernmost province where a military offensive against rebels began earlier in the week.

“Up to today the Red Cross has evacuated about 80 bodies” as a result of clashes or from areas where there has been fighting, Marie Muhammad, head of the PMI (the Indonesian Red Cross), said.

Muhammad, a former Indonesian finance minister, said he did not have details of how the victims were killed and also said it was not the PMI’s job to try to determine whether they were civilians or Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels.

The military said separately today that soldiers and police had killed four rebels in three battles overnight and in the morning. That would take to 62 the military’s toll of GAM fighters killed since the offensive began on Monday. Military sources also say two government soldiers and five civilians have died.

The rebels say at least 53 civilians have been killed, along with 12 GAM fighters and 43 soldiers.

and police.

The casualty tolls could not be independently verified. The Indonesian military says it is doing its utmost to avoid causing civilian deaths in the offensive, it's biggest in decades.

The military also says separatist rebels are trying to blend in with the civilian population as a means of escaping the offensive. To help stop that, it said on Saturday, new identification cards would be issued in Aceh.

With the United Nations warning of a looming humanitarian crisis, a military spokesman predicted the plan would help restore normality to parts of the staunchly Muslim province at the northern tip of Sumatra island.

FOR THE SAKE OF THE PEOPLE

”The ID card will have signatures from the local region, the local police and the local military,” said military spokesman Major M. Solih.“This is for the sake of the people to normalise the situation in parts of Aceh.”

Police say GAM rebels have been confiscating people's old identification cards, but it was not clear when the new cards would be introduced.

Indonesia declared martial law and attacked the rebels on Monday after a five-month peace agreement collapsed.

Officials say at least 23,000 civilians have fled their homes in the province, which is rich in gas and oil. The United Nations said basic health services had collapsed in places.

More than 10,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in a 27-year war in Aceh, one of two separatist hotspots in the archipelago. Papua province in the far east is the other.

The government has 45,000 troops and police pitted against about 5,000 GAM fighters, and is building its forces. Around 600 additional troops were due to leave Jakarta and another 400 central Java for Aceh on Saturday.

Jakarta hopes for victory within six months, but the rebels have historically taken full advantage of the rugged, jungle-clad terrain.

Solih said the military were pushing rebels from an island off the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, 1,700 km (1,060 miles) northwest of Jakarta.

They have pounded the island with rocket fire from helicopters and machinegun and cannon fire from patrol boats.

Various sources reported dangers on Aceh's roads, among them Indonesian television network Metro TV, which said a car carrying a reporting team was shot at in the Bireun area on the north coast, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting.

One round hit the vehicle but none of the passenger was injured, Metro reporter Aswandi Asnan told Reuters.

”The firing came from a hill...I didn't see who shot. When I heard the firing, I reflexively went prone,” he said. (With additional reporting by Telly Nathalia)

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