Tue, 08 Jul 2003

'Aceh operation to go beyond six months'

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The military operation in Aceh is likely to drag on beyond the initial time limit of six months, with the military chief saying that the operation will continue with or without an extension of martial law in the province.

Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting chaired by President Megawati Soekarnoputri, Indonesian Military (TNI) chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto said that the military operation may take more than a year before it could root out the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

"It the may take more than a year, and the military operation is likely to continue even if martial law is lifted," Endriartono said.

He said the decision on whether to extend martial law in the province would be taken later when the six-month period was approaching its end.

"However, that is for martial law, but maybe not for the military operation," the four-star general remarked.

President Megawati has said that martial law in Aceh would be extended if the military needed extra time to root out separatist rebels, and that she would consult the House of Representatives before extending the period.

It is not clear as yet what Endriartono aims to do with the extra time as he said earlier that the military had gained 100 percent control over Aceh's territory -- although this was later disputed by GAM commanders.

The military clearly stated before the military operation began that the aim of the operation was to regain territorial control and disarm as many rebels as possible.

The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), however, has labeled the military operation a failure as it had only increased the number of civilian casualties.

The 40,000-strong military and police operation to crush the separatists entered its eighth week on Monday. More than 48,000 people have been driven from their homes by the conflict.

The military is apparently trying to avoid a repeat of the rampant rights abuses in Aceh in the 1990s when the province was designated a military operation area.

In an ostensible effort to curb civilian casualties and human rights abuses, the military has disciplined or court-martialed a number of low-ranking soldiers suspected of having committed crimes.

Five of these have been sentenced to a few months in jail for beating villagers.

Three soldiers have also gone on trial for raping four Acehnese women in North Aceh. The trial started on Monday in Lhokseumawe.

Meanwhile, Lt, Col. Achmad Yani Basuki, the spokesman for the TNI's Operation Command in Lhokseumawe revealed on Wednesday that the TNI had killed a GAM deputy commander for the Pasai region, Tengku Halim bin Yasin.

Tengku Halim, according to Achmad Yani, was a deputy to Sofyan Dawood, the GAM Pasai commander and the organization's chief spokesman.

Halim was killed after a clash with TNI forces at Alue Putong village, Dewantara district, North Aceh, on Saturday morning.

The TNI seized one gun, 30 rounds of ammunition and a cell phone from his body.

"It was finally confirmed today that he was Tengku Halim bin Yasin," said Yani.