- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2003

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — Indonesia moved heavy artillery into rebel areas of Aceh yesterday, stepping up its offensive against the region’s poorly armed separatists.

The Free Aceh Movement said it wasn’t intimidated and vowed to keep up its fight for independence in the tiny province. Rebels promised to increase hit-and-run attacks on vehicles plying the main roadways.

“We will resist Indonesia until we are free,” said Tengku Jamacia, a rebel spokesman in northern Aceh. “Our soldiers are not afraid. The more Indonesian troops they see, the higher their morale.”

Burned-out trucks and minivans littered the roadside between the main cities of Banda Aceh and Lhokseumawe, casualties of the guerrilla-style fighting that has characterized eight days of renewed clashes in Asia’s longest-running separatist war.

The recent fighting, between more than 30,000 government troops and about 5,000 poorly armed rebels, marks the most intense crackdown yet in the oil- and gas-rich province, located on the northern tip of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island.

It also marks Indonesia’s largest military operation since it invaded East Timor in 1975.

Military spokesman Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsuddin said the government had learned lessons in the first week of fighting and would begin larger operations against rebels. He refused to elaborate or set a timetable.

“Such a large operation will, of course, get reactions” from rebels, he said. “If the reaction is aimed at the [military] or the police, that is to be expected. We are worried, though, that it will be aimed at civilians and the media.”

More than 21,000 Acehnese have fled their homes in recent days. The military accuses the rebels of burning hundreds of schools and attacking trucks transporting food into the province.

The Indonesian military said it killed at least six guerrillas in battles yesterday, bringing the rebel death toll to 75. It said five soldiers and police officers have been killed and 20 wounded.

The guerrillas said they have killed dozens of soldiers and accused the military of targeting civilians, a charge the army denies.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri ordered the offensive May 19, after cease-fire negotiations in Tokyo collapsed.

Meanwhile, Indonesian police said they had asked Interpol for help in arresting four exiled rebel leaders living in Europe.

The wanted men include Hasan di Tiro, who leads an Acehnese government-in-exile in Stockholm.

Baktiar Abdullah, spokesman for the group, told the Associated Press that he and his colleagues are Swedish citizens and have no fear of arrest.

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