Thu, 29 May 2003

Govt claims early success in Aceh operation

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Despite several shortcomings, the government said on Wednesday the ongoing military operation to crush the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in the province had been nothing but a success and was moving faster then expected.

Overlooking the failure to save more than 300 schools from arson attacks, the food distribution crisis and the flow of thousands of refugees in the past 10 days, the government said the operation had given it the upper hand.

The Indonesian Military (TNI) Commander Gen. Endriartono Sutarto said that in the first two weeks, the TNI managed to locate and reclaim GAM strongholds across the province.

"Our original plan was that within two months we would identify their (GAM) locations and reclaim them, however we made it in only two weeks," Endriartono told a press briefing that followed a ministerial meeting to evaluate how the integrated operations were progressing in Aceh.

He said in the coming months, the TNI expected to separate GAM members from other members of the community.

"We expect that within the next two months, we will manage to force GAM members to stay away from the villages and leave the people alone," he remarked.

TNI has repeatedly blamed the casualties among civilians on the GAM tactic of living among civilians. The military also accused the rebels of employing teenagers as spies.

Regarding the operation to enforce law and order, National Police chief Gen. Da'i Bachtiar said so far the police had arrested around 60 GAM members or people linked to the rebels across the country over the last nine days. Some were arrested in Jakarta and some in neighboring towns in Sumatra.

President Megawati Soekarnoputri issued a decree to impose martial law in the province on May 19 after peace talks between the government and GAM in Tokyo collapsed.

The government has now stationed more than 40,000 military and police personnel in the province to fight GAM, which has an estimated 5,000 members.

Three days into the military operation, more than 300 school buildings were burned by unidentified people, leaving more than 40,000 students without classrooms.

The first week saw the prices of staple foods increase up to 30 percent as food distribution was disrupted and several trucks carrying food supplies from Medan in North Sumatra were burned along the route.

The latest report from Aceh said that more than 23,000 people have taken refuge, especially around North Aceh and Bireuen regencies, which experience heavy gunfights almost every day.

However, none of the top government officials were willing on Wednesday to admit these shortcomings.

The growing fear and anxiety among the Acehnese people since the operation began was not addressed during the meeting either.

Endriartono said that so far his soldiers had been carrying out their task well and he once again underlined that he would not hesitate to take stern action against his soldiers who abused people.

"If they hurt people, I will not hesitate to shoot them in the head," the TNI chief asserted.

In his report, Minister of Social Affairs Bachtiar Chamsyah dismissed reports of refugees or other Acehnese who were short of food.

"We have managed to provide supplies of all necessary food and other basic needs in 13 points across the province. There will be no food shortage," he asserted.

From Banda Aceh, administrator of martial law in Aceh Maj. Gen. Endang Suwarya said camps had been prepared for civilians displaced by war and four million ID cards would be replaced -- signs the assault on separatist rebels is being stepped up.

Sixteen tent camps in nine districts -- including Bireuen, Pidie and North Aceh -- had been erected, he said as quoted by AFP, adding that refugees would be provided with sanitation facilities and temporary classrooms.

The military, aided by provincial administrators, will issue new ID cards for some 4.2 million residents in Aceh next month, Endang said, which signals heightened efforts by the military to distinguish civilians from the rebels.

The first phase will affect 1.7 million people.

Endang said "there are no longer heavy concentrations of GAM" but troops will continue operations in several areas because most of them "have blended in with the public".