Thu, 03 Jul 2003

TNI claims territorial control over Aceh

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

The Indonesia Military (TNI) claimed on Wednesday it had control of the Aceh province, six weeks after the launching of the military offensive to quash the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) separatists, but warned quickly that fighting would continue.

"When it comes to territorial control, it is 100 percent under our control," TNI Chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto said as quoted by Antara. "But if there be one or two more attacks, we didn't say that security is 100 percent guaranteed."

Regaining territorial control has been one of the two goals of the current security operation in Aceh, the biggest since the East Timor invasion in 1975.

The other goal is to disarm as many GAM members as possible.

Endriartono said, however, the military offensive would continue. GAM he said remained a threat with troops still coming under fire from the rebels.

He did not give a timetable, but officials have said they hope to wind down military operations, which began on May 19, after six months or less.

Jakarta launched the offensive on May 19 following the breakdown of a five-month-old peace deal with GAM. The military operation is set to last for six months, but TNI has claimed the military operation was achieving some progress ahead of schedule.

Territorial control was targeted within two months of the start of the operation. The other four-month period aims at separating civilians from GAM rebels, who blend with the civilian population.

GAM strongholds include the regencies of Pidie, Bireun and Aceh Besar. Where support for independence is strong, rebels often run their own local administrations, rendering state offices useless. Now, many rebels have left densely populated areas and retreated into the forests or mixed with the local people.

Earlier, Army chief Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu claimed that the military operation has whittled down GAM's force from an estimated 5,000 to between 600 to 700.

According to TNI estimates, 309 GAM members were killed in the first six weeks of the offensive. Another 682 have either surrendered or were captured.

However GAM military spokesman Sofyan Dawood, said his forces were still united in the field.

"According to us, there is no problem. Things are normal," he was quoted as saying by Agence France Presse.

GAM previously controlled several areas in the province and ran a de facto civil administration in some districts.

In the latest incident, two GAM members stole on Wednesday two rifles belonging to police officers who were guarding a state- owned bank in Darussalam area, some eight kilometers from the provincial capital of Banda Aceh.

Banda Aceh Police deputy chief Comr. Arie Rachman said the rebels posed as customers when they stole the rifles.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Yani Basuki said eight clashes have been reported across the province since Tuesday, with two rebels killed and two captured for the loss of one soldier. A second soldier was injured.

The military was continuing its search for an Indonesian TV crew missing since Sunday when it left East Aceh for Lhokseumawe.

Commenting on the disappearance of the reporter, cameraman and driver from the private RCTI station, Sutarto said journalists in Aceh "should stick close" to the military.

Last month, a cameraman with the state TVRI station was found murdered in Aceh after going missing for almost a month. Muhammad Jamal had been abducted from his office by unidentified gunmen.

Late on Tuesday, GAM members allegedly lobbed three grenades at the Lhokseumawe military district command. Almost at the same time, another grenade was lobbed at the North Aceh regent's office in Lhokseumawe. No one was injured in either attack.

The North Aceh capital of Lhokseumawe is the seat of the military operation command center.

Tuesday's attacks marked the first grenade attacks in Lhokseumawe, which is where the Indonesian unit of U.S energy giant ExxonMobil operates a gas field.

Elsewhere, a marine officer and two GAM rebels were killed in a firefight on Mt. Ketek in the village of Sama Dua in South Aceh regency on Tuesday, Yani said.

He said that Pvt. Anton Pujo Harmoko was killed while two others were injured as they engaged a group of some 15 rebels in a gunfight.

The marines, he said, were on patrol when they clashed.

On the same day, rebels also abducted two residents of the Krueng Saba district in Aceh Jaya regency, Yani said.