Wed, 07 May 2003

Military operations in Aceh to start soon

Fabiola Desy Unidjaja, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

President Megawati Soekarnoputri instructed security personnel on Tuesday to prepare for military operations in Aceh, setting the stage for a showdown between government troops and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in the troubled province.

Coordinating Minister for Political and Security Affairs Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said after a limited Cabinet meeting that Megawati had decided to use force if the rebels defied a two-week deadline to disarm and renounce their demand for independence.

"The President has instructed (the Indonesian Military) to prepare for any military operations after the May 12 deadline, but the exact time will be determined later," Susilo said.

The government has given GAM members a two-week deadline to accept the special autonomy status for Aceh and disarm if they want to salvage the Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) signed in Geneva, Switzerland last year.

The ultimatum was issued after the government angrily pulled out of a Joint Council meeting after GAM moved the date back to April 27, instead of April 25 as it had previously suggested.

The meeting, the highest under the COHA, was requested by the government to resolve violations to the peace pact, which had been proven to reduce violence in Aceh.

The rebels, who have been fighting for independence for resource-rich Aceh since 1976, defied the ultimatum, saying that they would return to the negotiating table on their own terms.

GAM, through peace facilitator the Henry Dunant Centre (HDC), had requested a meeting after May 12 in Geneva. The government insisted that the meeting be held before May 12 in Indonesia.

GAM has resorted to delay tactics in dealing with the Aceh issue. When the government requested a Joint Council meeting in Indonesia, GAM wanted it in Japan, where donor countries met last year to mobilize restoration funds for battered Aceh.

When the government caved in to their demand, GAM leaders insisted that the talks be held in Geneva on April 25. Later, GAM pushed the date back to April 27, prompting the government to withdraw and issue an ultimatum.

Indonesian Military (TNI) chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto said President Megawati would issue a number of presidential decrees as legal grounds for any military operations in Aceh.

"Of course, the TNI will need a regulation to legalize the operations, maybe through a presidential decree or some other form," Endriartono said.

It was not immediately clear whether the decision meant that the government was officially abandoning the peace pact signed with GAM on Dec. 9.

Under COHA, any military operations would be justified only if GAM fails to disarm itself by July 9, 2003, when the rebels were expected to be completely disarmed.

Susilo said any military operations would not prevent peace talks with the GAM rebels.

"We are still open to holding peace talks with GAM after the (May 12) deadline lapses. It will not restrain us from going ahead with the military operations," Susilo said.

Meanwhile in Aceh, violence continued unabated with the shooting death of provincial legislator Amiruddin Adam of the United Development Party (PPP) at Mesjid village in East Aceh regency on Tuesday.

Another clash also broke out in Reng-reng village in Pidie regency when some 15 GAM members became involved in a gunfight with government troops. Antara reported that two GAM members were killed in the clash.

TNI has deployed more troops to the province in the past week with the recent addition of 1,200 marines to take part in rebuilding the province.

There are about 12,000 policemen and 26,000 TNI soldiers stationed in the province.

In an interview with SCTV television station later on Tuesday, Susilo also disclosed that there was a possibility that the government would release HDC, the peace broker of the Dec. 9 agreement, from its facilitation role.

In the Cabinet meeting, the government also decided to officially ask the Swedish government to prohibit its citizens, Hasan Tiro and his group, from leading GAM.

"We will officially ask the Swedish government to ban its citizens from leading a separatist group in our country," Minister for Foreign Affairs Hassan Wirayuda said.

The diplomatic attempt may not yield the desired result as the Swedish government allows the country to grant political asylum to foreigners seeking the facility.

Indonesia also does not have an extradition treaty with Sweden, making it impossible for Jakarta to ask for tough measures against Tiro and his group, who have been living in Sweden since 1979.