Sun, 06 Jul 2003

12 rebels killed in Aceh, 'RCTI' minivan found

Aan Suryana, The Jakarta Post, Lhokseumauwe, Aceh

At the start of the seventh week of the military offensive against the separatists in Aceh, troops killed 12 more rebels in a crackdown on the Free Aceh Movement's strongholds in the resource-rich province on Saturday.

In the meantime, the military gave an ultimatum to the RCTI television crew members, who along with three Acehnese are being held hostage, to come out into the area where their car was found on Saturday, otherwise they would be in "a difficult situation".

Military operation spokesman Lt. Col. Achmad Yani Basuki said that eight rebels were killed in their hideout in the northern Aceh village of Blang Mayang and four others were killed in two separate gunfights in Pidie and East Aceh regencies.

The first eight bodies were recovered by Indonesian Red Cross volunteers from Kandang village early on Saturday morning.

Nearly 350 rebels have been killed and 600 taken prisoner since the military launched an offensive on May 19 to quash the separatist movement. Dozens of military and police personnel have been already killed during the first six weeks of the offensive.

The offensive has also displaced more than 40,000 Acehnese who are taking refuge both within and outside the province. The refugees face health problems and food shortages, among other problems.

GAM has been fighting for more than 26 years for independence in the oil-and gas-rich province in response to what they called injustice and human rights abuses over the last three decades.

More than 12,000 people have been killed during the conflict.

The TNI has also claimed that the province, including areas which were formerly GAM strongholds, is under military control.

The insurgents say many of the dead were civilians, not combatants. Rights groups, too, have argued that the military campaign has failed due to the high number of casualties among civilians.

In another development, the military has recovered the Kijang minivan belonging to private television station RCTI at the palm oil plantation in Peureulak area in East Aceh and appealed to the crew members to come out into the area for their own safety.

"I believe that RCTI journalist Erza and cameraman Fery Santoro know the location (of the car) so, for their own safety, we ask them to raise a white flag," Yani said on Saturday.

The RCTI crew has been held hostage by the rebels since June 29 and according to GAM, their release will depend on the development of the military operation.

Two of the three Acehnese people accompanying them are wives of Air Force officers.

"If Erza fails to show up by 6 p.m. on Tuesday, no one can blame the military for not protecting civilians, including them," Yani said.

The car was found by soldiers at the plantation some eight kilometers from the main road in Peureulak. It was locked and had a minor dent on the front.

A GAM spokesman said on Thursday that the rebels were holding five people, including the two journalists, their driver and the wives of two soldiers traveling with them as guides. They have been missing since Sunday.

He said the five were "healthy and unharmed".

An Aceh-based cameraman from TVRI state television network, Muhammad Jamaluddin, was found dead last month after being kidnapped by unidentified people.

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on Saturday called for international action to secure the release of the journalists being held hostage.

It also issued a general safety alert over an "outrageous catalog of violations of journalists' rights" in the region.

On June 26 military authorities issued an order restricting the movements of foreign journalists and local Indonesian reporters working for foreign media.