Banda Aceh, May 26 (Reuters): Indonesia plans to step up a military offensive against separatist rebels in Aceh a week after declaring martial law in the province and sending in thousands of troops.
“We have evaluated and decided that the momentum has to be increased,” Indonesia’s main military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Sjafrie Sjamsuddin, said in the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island.
He said the stepped-up campaign against Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatists would include more patrols and sweeps, referring to such tactics as vehicle searches and document checks. It could also mean security forces going systematically from one village to the next, Sjamsuddin said.
The military says since its campaign began a week ago, clashes with GAM have averaged four or five a day, with security forces killing 68 rebels and losing three of their own. It says six civilians have died.
An Indonesian Red Cross official said early today that it had removed 82 bodies from conflict areas since the latest round of fighting flared. Rebel sources say scores of civilians and hundreds of government soldiers have been killed. Confirmation of the various claims is not possible, but there has been no visible evidence or independent backing in Aceh for GAM’s count of government dead.
The military launched the offensive after the collapse of a five-month peace deal. About 45,000 members of the security forces face some 5,000 GAM fighters who have adopted hit-and-run tactics. Previous campaigns have failed to crush the rebels, fighting for 27 years in a simmering conflict that has taken at least 10,000 lives.
There were reports of several small clashes over the weekend and on Monday.
The fighting has forced as many as 23,000 people from their homes in the remote province and disrupted transportation.
On Monday, scores of people left Banda Aceh piled into mini-vans, joining trucks picking up supplies under the protection of well-armed troops.
The convoy included about a dozen mini-vans crammed with passengers, and about 13 empty trucks heading south to the city of Medan, hoping to bring supplies back to Aceh where shortages have led to soaring prices.
The vans usually ply the route to and from Medan, capital of North Sumatra province, and were expected to drop off and pick up passengers in the resource-rich, staunchly Muslim province along the way.
Authorities said the disruption of transport and food supplies as a result of rebel attacks on the roads had to stop.
”These shortages simply cannot be allowed to continue,” said Aceh governor Abdullah Puteh who saw the convoy off from Banda Aceh.
In Jakarta, chief social welfare minister Yusuf Kalla told reporters that there were no problems with supplies of staple goods in Aceh, but because truck traffic was being blocked ”starting next week, a ship with a load capacity of 60 trucks will operate twice a week to Aceh for emergencies.”