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Indonesia Strikes at Rebels

The president declares martial law in Aceh province after peace talks fail and launches a major offensive against separatists there.

May 19, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

JAKARTA, Indonesia — President Megawati Sukarnoputri declared martial law in the northern province of Aceh at midnight Sunday and within hours launched a major offensive aimed at subduing rebels who have sought independence there for decades.

The declaration of martial law, which came after last-minute peace talks broke down in Tokyo, scuttled hopes for the revival of a 5-month-old cease-fire agreement negotiated by the United States and other neutral countries.

Indonesia, which has sent thousands of troops to the region in recent weeks, had insisted that Acehnese separatists give up their demands for independence as a condition of continuing the cease-fire.

"All the parts of Aceh province are declared as being in a dangerous situation with their status now under a military emergency," said the decree, which was read out at midnight by a presidential aide.

Early today, the army began hostilities by launching a rocket attack on rebel positions. A military spokesman said the main offensive would begin later in the morning, with rapid reaction forces dropping in by parachute.

In Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, Indonesian police rearrested five negotiators from the rebel Free Aceh Movement who had been prevented from attending the peace talks in Tokyo. The five, who were arrested Friday as they prepared to leave for Japan, had been released Saturday.

"The Indonesia government wishes to continue their war on the Acehnese," exiled rebel leader Mahmood Malik told reporters in Tokyo after peace talks collapsed.

"We will fight. We are ready. We have been fighting already for 27 years."

Indonesia's central government has long sought to subdue the people of Aceh, a province that is rich in natural resources but has received little of the wealth it has generated.

One of the province's biggest enterprises is a huge natural gas facility operated by ExxonMobil and long protected by Indonesian troops, who have been accused of human rights violations against the Acehnese.

At least 12,000 people have died in the long-running war, many of them civilians.

The last time Indonesia declared martial law was in 1999, when President B.J. Habibie tried to halt violence in the province of East Timor caused by rampaging military-sponsored militias. Soon after, East Timor won independence.

In her decree Sunday, Megawati said the Free Aceh Movement was endangering the province by refusing to accept Indonesia's sovereignty over the territory. The government had offered the province special autonomy and a greater share of revenue.

The decree gives the military the power to impose curfews, conduct searches, ban communications and publications, control all telecommunications, and detain suspects in the expectation they might break the law.

For the last five months, the Acehnese have enjoyed one of the longest peaceful interludes since the war began. The cease-fire called for the army to pull back to its barracks and for the rebels to begin disarming in a process supervised by international monitors.

However, the rebels were slow to disarm, and the government began a new military buildup, increasing the number of troops in the region from 26,000 to more than 46,000. In recent weeks, violence broke out anew, with dozens of casualties, prompting the monitors to withdraw. The government estimates the Free Aceh Movement has a fighting force of about 5,000.

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