Banda Aceh, May 23 (Reuters): Indonesia today said that 58 separatist rebels in Aceh province have been killed, and 23,000 civilians have fled their homes, since the military began its biggest offensive in years.
An Indonesian military document, seen by reporters today afternoon, listed 58 rebels killed, up from a figure of 38 given in the morning.
Aceh deputy governor Aswar Abubakar said that since Monday when the campaign began — during which the military said rebels had melted into the civilian population — thousands of civilians had fled their homes in Indonesia’s western-most province.
“There have been 23,000 refugees. Some of them are in North Aceh, Bireun, West Aceh and a few in other places. They won’t be evacuated to Banda Aceh,” Abubakar said. “Some fear their areas will become operation areas.”
Aceh’s military commander visited an island off the north Aceh coast today to deliver humanitarian aid to an isolated community that has seen several clashes in recent days with entrenched Free Aceh Movement (GAM) forces.
The military has pounded the island, a half-hour by boat from the provincial capital Banda Aceh, with rocket fire from helicopters and machinegun and cannon fire from patrol boats.
“We are trying to eliminate the rebels from the air, land and sea. We are trying to prevent them from escaping,” Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya said. Island resident Leila, who like many Indonesians uses one name, said the military campaign was frightening. “We are scared. Our economic life is very bad and we need aid.”
Jakarta declared martial law in Aceh and the military launched its biggest offensive since the 1975 invasion of East Timor following the collapse of last-ditch talks in Tokyo last Sunday aimed at saving a five-month-old peace pact.
GAM has held out for independence instead of the special autonomy Jakarta is offering Aceh, whose four million people practice a stricter kind of Islam than in the rest of Indonesia. The province is rich in oil and gas. The US, Japan and Europe have all urged a resumption of negotiations. Battlefield claims could not be easily verified, but there were reports of disrupted transportation, hundreds of burned schools, and growing numbers of refugees and civilian casualties.