Banda Aceh, May 22 (Reuters): Indonesian troops fought rebels across six different parts of jungle-clad Aceh province today, as officers considered imposing curfews on flashpoints in the region.
The military said it had killed several more separatists today, taking the total since Monday to 16. It said a district rebel commander had also surrendered yesterday, the second senior separatist to do so in a week.
“There have been six clashes today, some are still going on. At all times we can intensify the operations because we have no mercy toward these separatists,” Aceh military chief Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya said in the provincial capital Banda Aceh.
A spokesman for the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which began fighting for independence in 1976, insisted no separatists had been killed and accused the military of murdering nearly 50 civilians. The military denied killing non-combatants.
The military, which launched its biggest offensive since the 1975 invasion of East Timor following the collapse of last-ditch peace talks in Tokyo, said it was considering slapping curfews on Pidie and Bireun districts, both separatist strongholds.
“Violence has risen in both those places,” said Firdaus Komarno, a military spokesman in the oil and gas-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra island.
In Jakarta, foreign minister Hassan Wirajuda went on the defensive in the face of international concern, telling foreign envoys Indonesia’s territorial integrity was at stake.
“It is they who speak the language of force and terror,” he said, blaming the rebels for the unravelling of a five-month-old peace pact. Mediators say Jakarta sank the weekend Tokyo talks.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in the 27-year war but casualty claims are traditionally hotly disputed.
One hospital official in Banda Aceh said the military had brought in nine bodies riddled with bullets since Monday. Some, he said, looked like civilians. “Almost 50 civilians have been killed by the military,” said a GAM spokesman, speaking from an undisclosed location. He could offer no witness accounts of troops doing the killing.
The military said it had killed 16 rebels and captured nine in the campaign so far, with one soldier killed and six wounded. Suwarya said today’s clashes had been in East Aceh, West Aceh, a region near Banda Aceh and an isle just off the capital.
As part of the isle operation, troops secured the beachfront of the scenic island, 30 minutes by boat from Banda Aceh, that the military said had been used by GAM to train recruits and which under normal circumstances would be a tourist paradise.
“We will pounce if the rebels come out of the jungle,” First Admiral Adi Prabawa, commander of the Western Fleet’s combat division, said enroute to the island on a patrol boat.
Reporters were told to stay on the patrol boat offshore.
One officer said troops would try to close down a suspected camp and seize marijuana there and on two adjacent isles he alleged was grown by the rebels and used to buy weapons.
The military said one district rebel commander, Teuku Ali Said from western Aceh, had surrendered on Wednesday. Last week a more senior rebel commander defected.
Damien Kingsbury, an expert on the Indonesian military from Australia's Deakin University, said the defections were not too significant, adding that with a long conflict likely some would be assessing whether it was worth the cost of fighting on.
Officials said schools were still being torched, with about 290 schools gutted since Monday, affecting more than 60,000 students. The two sides have traded accusations over the arson.
Indonesia, which has repeatedly failed to defeat the rebels, has 45,000 troops and police here. GAM has about 5,000 fighters.
(With reporting by Dean Yates, Telly Nathalia and Muklis Ali)