- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2002

NORTH ACEH, Indonesia The gunfire started before dawn near the rice paddies off the main road. For close to two hours, Indonesian soldiers and rebels from the Free Aceh Movement exchanged fire in a village about 25 miles east of Lhokseumawe, the North Aceh district capital.

"All the people heard it. Because of the noise, everybody woke up," one resident of a nearby village said. He said he didn't know if anyone had died in the firefight.

"Many soldiers went in there. We're not brave enough to follow," said the man, 40.

For nine months, the Indonesian military has been hunting the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and engaging the rebels in skirmishes to block their efforts to create an independent nation in this devoutly Muslim province, rich in oil and gas, across the Strait of Malacca from Malaysia.

The campaign seems to be working an apparent success illustrated by the battlefield death of GAM's commander Abdullah Syafii on Jan. 22.

GAM is on the run, and so are thousands of civilians who are the most common victims in this conflict. More than 1,000 civilians died last year amid worsening violence that, by some accounts, claimed more than 100 more lives in January.

But as the Indonesian military moved early this month to solidify its hold on the province by forming a special military command for Aceh, most observers agreed that even an apparent victory by government forces would only delay the rebel movement. The rebellion is rooted in widespread resentment of Indonesia's exploitation of Aceh's natural resources.

"Many people I come across say that if force continues to be used, maybe it will end the conflict for a moment. But in the long run it won't be finished. If one side feels defeated, for the moment he'll stay silent, but when he has the strength, he won't accept his defeat any longer," Al-Yasa Abubakar, an Islamic leader, said in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

The commander of the military operation, Brig. Gen. Djali Yusuf, said his forces can annihilate the rebels, but that is not the government's intention.

"To annihilate them, to finish them off, doesn't have to be done with weapons. That's not our way," Gen. Yusuf, 52, told The Washington Times in his first interview with a foreign journalist.

Calling the separatists "our brothers," Gen. Yusuf who is Acehnese said the government is still appealing to the separatists to end their struggle and engage in dialogue. For the first time in months, talks between the two sides have resumed in Switzerland, monitored by international observers including U.S. mediator Gen. Anthony Zinni.

Previous negotiations and agreements to control the violence in 2000 and early 2001 failed.

Sofyan Ibrahim Tiba, one of five men assigned to represent GAM in talks with Jakarta, said any dialogue will take a long time and cannot succeed while fighting continues.

Founded in 1976, GAM previously has faced severe pressure from the Indonesian military. A year ago, the movement's red flags taunted Indonesian police from atop rural power lines on the highway between Banda Aceh and Lhokseumawe. The flags are gone now and Indonesian army posts along the road proclaim that government troops are "Loyal until death."

Last year, not far from Lhokseumawe and its giant Exxon Mobil natural-gas processing facility, a senior GAM fighter, Sofian Daud, could be found easily. But days after the death of GAM commander Mr. Syafii, Mr. Daud was difficult to reach by cellular or satellite phone. When he could talk, he spoke of security problems and could not arrange a meeting.

Still, GAM remains strong enough that its call for a general strike in mid-January shut down businesses and public transport for three days. Mr. Tiba, the GAM representative in talks with the government, said the rebels are in a defensive position.

"When the time is right, we attack. That's how guerrillas operate," he said in Banda Aceh. "The struggle will continue."

Muzzakir Manaf, a Libyan-trained GAM fighter with movie-star good looks, has been named the rebels' new commander.

Unlike Afghanistan's Taliban, GAM is waging a struggle that is exclusively nationalist not religious.

[Muslim extremist group Laskar Jihad held its first rally in the volatile Indonesian province of Aceh this week, despite opposition from GAM. Monday's rally, which may have been a recruiting foray, reportedly drew about 100 onlookers.

[A GAM leader said the separatists oppose the Java-based radical group's activities because GAM seeks an independent Aceh, not a religious war.

[GAM spokesman Ayah Sofyan charged that the Indonesian military is supporting the presence of the Laskar Jihad in Aceh, Agence France-Presse reported. The fact that the Laskar Jihad has gained the backing of some military and police factions in its campaign against Christians in the Molucca Islands adds credibility to Mr. Sofyan's accusation, the risk and analysis firm Stratfor.com said.

[Although it's not clear yet if the military is allowing Laskar Jihad to set up a presence in Aceh, the rise of extremist Muslims in the province would allow the security services to continue their crackdown against the separatist movement with more international support, Stratfor said. Laskar Jihad is said to have 15,000 leaders and members who have fought in Afghanistan alongside al Qaeda and the Taliban.]

Mr. Tiba disputed Indonesian military estimates that about 300 GAM guerrillas had died during the current military offensive. Figures from the Coalition for Human Rights, an Ahcenese group, show 60 members of the security forces and 94 GAM members died in 2001, along with 1,006 civilians.

Civilians continue to die in large numbers even as the military becomes more accurate in targeting the rebels, said Faisal Hadi of the coalition. "Now they can identify the target more precisely, but still civilians become the victims," he said at his Banda Aceh office.

Precise casualty counts are hard to come by. Members of Mr. Hadi's own staff have become casualties. Sufrin Sulaiman, a coalition attorney, was shot and killed on March 29. He had just left a police station.

The military offensive that began in May replaced an ineffective "law enforcement operation" in which undisciplined paramilitary police, known as Brimob, were flown in to secure the province, backed by soldiers.

Brimob is still there, part of a 12,000-man police contingent, but it is the 17,000 troops who are taking the lead in hunting the GAM. "The new troops have a better reputation than the Brimob," a Western diplomat said. "However, there are still instances of military abuse."

The diplomat, who spoke on condition he not be identified, pointed to the Aug. 9 massacre of 31 workers at the Bumi Flora palm oil plantation in East Aceh district.

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