- The Washington Times - Monday, May 19, 2003

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Indonesia began a major military offensive yesterday against separatist rebels in a northwest province — firing rockets, parachuting troops and landing marines after peace talks collapsed and martial law was imposed.

More than 1,000 elite soldiers landed in the oil- and gas-rich Aceh province in what is expected to be Indonesia’s biggest military operation since invading East Timor in 1975.

“I have ordered soldiers to hunt for those [rebels] who refuse to surrender … . Hunt for them and destroy them to their roots,” Indonesian military chief Gen. Endriartono Sutarto said upon arriving in Banda Aceh.

About 30,000 government troops are trying to crush about 5,000 poorly armed guerrillas in a dense, mountainous forest. The sides have been fighting since 1976, making this one of Asia’s longest-running conflicts.

By late afternoon, no rebel casualties were reported and troops were meeting minimal resistance, said Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsuddin. One Indonesian marine was killed in an accident while landing on a beach in bad weather, he said.

Monday’s attack signaled a return to military confrontation after the breakdown of a Dec. 9 cease-fire between the government and the Free Aceh Movement.

The accord — which envisioned autonomy, rebel disarmament and military withdrawals — unraveled in recent months after violence and mutual recriminations in the province 1,200 miles northwest of the capital, Jakarta. More than 12,000 people have been killed in the decades of fighting.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri spared no time ordering a crackdown after rebels refused to honor a government-imposed deadline for laying down weapons and abandoning their demand for independence.

Five rebel negotiators also were arrested and accused of carrying out a series of recent bombings in Indonesia.

A presidential decree authorized six months of military rule in Aceh, giving authorities wide powers to make arrests and limit movements in and out of the province.

Attack planes droned over the provincial capital of Banda Aceh yesterday and fired rockets at a suspected rebel weapons cache at a hillside base. The blasts destroyed an abandoned chicken coop and farmers’ huts near empty villages surrounded by palm-fringed rice fields.

Six C-130 Hercules transport aircraft released 458 parachutists over an airstrip close to Banda Aceh, Maj. Gen. Erwin Sujono said. More than 600 marines landed from one of 15 warships off the province’s northern coast, he said.

Weekend talks in Tokyo were arranged hastily under pressure from international donors alarmed by the prospect of renewed fighting. The European Union, Japan, the United States and the World Bank issued a joint statement yesterday saying they “deeply regret” that the two sides “failed to seize the unique opportunity before them.”

Rebel leader Malik Mahmud said he believed the Indonesian government was “looking for a way to declare war” and had no intention of compromising.

Aceh, on Sumatra island’s northern tip, was once an independent sultanate and has a long history of defiance, beginning with a Dutch colonialist invasion in 1870.

The Acehnese were at the forefront of Indonesia’s fight for independence during the 1940s. When Indonesia declared independence in 1945, Aceh was promised autonomy but never got it — the first of many broken promises by Jakarta that triggered a series of Acehnese rebellions.

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