Thu, 22 May 2003

Casualties rise as offensive intensifies

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta/Lhokseumawe

Casualties rose on Wednesday as the Indonesian Military (TNI) mounted massive attacks on strongholds of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in Bireuen, North Aceh, and Aceh Besar.

Senior army officers said soldiers killed nine rebels on the third and bloodiest day of the assault, but separatists put the death toll at 13, including 10 civilians. There was no independent source to verify the claims.

In Bireuen, at least seven alleged members of GAM were killed in shootouts with government troops sent in to put an end to arson attacks on public schools in the regency.

Public transportation in the regency also came to a halt following attacks by unidentified people on vehicles passing by the main road connecting Banda Aceh and Medan in North Sumatra.

"It is too dangerous to go outside the house. We decided not to go outside," Aisyah, a resident of Djuli village, Bireuen, told The Jakarta Post on Wednesday.

Government troops also clashed with rebels on Wednesday in Teupin-Punti, Geudong district, where the rebels opened fire on a vehicle belong to U.S. oil company ExxonMobil. No casualties were reported.

In Pidie, GAM torched five vehicles at Bleumpang III district along the highway between Banda Aceh and Medan, while in Aceh Besar, Din Syehman, GAM commander for Cot Kreueng Darussalam in Kuta Baro district and his bodyguard M. Isa were killed in a gunfight with the military.

Also on Wednesday, military helicopters fired rockets at rebel bases on two islands off Banda Aceh, but no information on casualties was immediately available.

Meanwhile, martial law administrator Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya moved to censor the press, telling journalists covering the operations to stop quoting GAM spokesmen.

"Journalists are free to report on the actions of security personnel in the field. As long as it is correct, we will accept it," he said.

"But there should be no reports from GAM and (no) reports that praise GAM."

He also said that he was considering implementing a curfew in Pidie and Bireuen.

Endang said authorities would arrest GAM supporters -- individuals or organizations -- as part of efforts to reduce support for the movement.

Police on Tuesday arrested Cut Nur Asikin, an activist campaigning for an independence referendum. They said she may face charges of plotting against the state or violating antiterrorism laws.

Endang had also ordered troops to shoot arsonists on sight after unidentified men torched about 248 school buildings, mostly in Biruen and Pidie regencies, after the military operation was launched last Monday.

According to Endang, GAM rebels had burned a transmitter of state-owned radio RRI in the district of Indrapuri, Aceh Besar, late on Tuesday.

TNI chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto briefed military officers in Lhokseumawe after realizing that the separatist guerrillas had discarded their combat attire and infiltrated the civilian populace.

The four-star general acknowledged that the situation "would make the military operations more difficult than had been predicted".

In Jakarta, Indonesian Red Cross (PMI) chairman Mari'e Muhammad said his office had distributed 10 tons of rice from the World Food Program (WFP) as the military operation began in the province.

"We also have hundreds of volunteers and sufficient medical supplies to treat victims of the ongoing operation in the province," he said.

Mari'e called on both the TNI and GAM to provide access and guarantee the safety of volunteers while conducting their humanitarian duties in the province.

"We expressed hope that both sides would respect the Geneva convention that obligates the warring parties to guarantee the safety of humanitarian workers and provide access while performing their duties," he added.

Separately, Coordinating Minister for Social Welfare Jusuf Kalla said that the government had difficulties in distributing basic provisions for the Acehnese as many of the staple foodstuffs must be delivered from Medan.

"We have enough rice in the province, around 45,000 tons, but we may have difficulties in providing other basic needs, which have to be delivered from Medan," he said.

The government, Jusuf said, was trying to find an appropriate way to distribute the goods.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Hassan Wirajuda said on Wednesday that the government had demanded that the Swedish government take action on its Acehnese citizens who were responsible for directing attacks in Indonesian cities.