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Indonesia's Separatist War Claims the Young

May 31, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

COT RABO, Indonesia — The troops arrived before dawn, moving through the rice paddies and past the shrimp ponds of this quiet coastal village.

The soldiers were hunting for rebels fighting for the independence of Aceh, Indonesia's westernmost province. What they found, villagers say, were seven boys and men whose job was to watch over the ponds.

What happened next is not entirely clear, but within minutes all seven were dead. One villager says the soldiers shot some of the men and boys as they were trying to escape, and executed others. One of the boys was 12. Another was 13.

"The soldiers say they protect the people, but the fact is they beat me and killed my son," said another resident, Ajo, the father of Anas Rihan, the youngest victim.

Across this war-torn province, residents say the killing of noncombatants has occurred almost daily since the Indonesian government declared martial law May 19 and launched a major military offensive. This week, The Times visited five villages in the Bireun district of Aceh, where witnesses, neighbors and relatives said Indonesian soldiers had summarily executed 12 people, including the seven in Cot Rabo.

Villagers say all 12 victims were civilians. The government says they were rebels or -- in the case of the children -- rebel spies.

Most of the victims were shot in the head or chest at close range, some after they were severely beaten, said witnesses who saw the bodies. Some corpses were dumped into paddies. Other victims were left where they were slain.

Indonesia says it wants to win the hearts and minds of Aceh's 4 million people with a campaign that combines military action and humanitarian aid, but the army's tactics appear to be doing more to create sympathy for the rebels.

"If this happens again and again, it will never solve the problem," said Yusny Saby, professor of Islamic thought at Ar-Raniry Islamic State University in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. "It will prolong the hatred and enmity of the people."

The guerrillas of the Free Aceh Movement have fought for nearly 27 years to win independence for the province, which lies on the northern tip of Sumatra. They say the territory, which is rich in natural gas, was never legally incorporated into Indonesia. The war has claimed more than 10,000 lives, many of them civilian.

The government fears that granting Aceh independence would lead to the breakup of Indonesia, the world's fourth-most-populous country, where ethnic and religious fighting has erupted repeatedly over the last five years.

Indonesia mounted a brutal campaign in Aceh during the 1990s to crush the independence movement, but it has never been able to defeat the rebels, who hide in the jungle or melt into the civilian population.

The military has been accused of widespread human rights violations, including killings and abductions, but no one has been held accountable, fueling further hatred of the government. People who said they witnessed the recent killings said they feared for their lives and would not give more than a nickname.

The idea of independence has broad appeal in the province, where the government is widely viewed as corrupt. Much of Aceh's petroleum wealth goes to the government, while military commanders allegedly profit from illegal logging and other illicit enterprises.

Other nations, including the United States, support Indonesia's right to defend its territorial integrity but have urged both sides to find a peaceful solution.

In December, the Geneva-based Henry Dunant Center mediated a cease-fire that called for the rebels to disarm and for the troops to withdraw to their barracks. The accord brought the province its first period of peace in decades, but the calm evaporated in May.

Most of the fighting since martial law was imposed has taken place in rural areas, where the Free Aceh Movement is strongest.

Charred hulks of trucks and buses sit alongside the main road that runs across the northern tip of Sumatra. Power poles apparently downed by the rebels occasionally block side roads leading to villages. Soldiers and police are deployed at numerous checkpoints. Armored personnel carriers speed along the highway. Troops accompany convoys of 40 trucks or more bringing supplies to the region.

In many towns and villages, the remains of schools destroyed by arsonists are evidence of some of the most senseless destruction of the war. Authorities say nearly 400 schools were torched during the first 10 days of martial law. Each side blames the other.

The military is seeking to hunt down and eliminate an estimated 5,000 rebel fighters. So far, it says it has killed 86. But the soldiers seem to be hampered by a lack of information about the identity and location of the guerrillas.

The military says it will soon begin forcibly relocating some villagers to detention centers to deprive guerrillas of the ability to blend in with civilians. For now, troops are going village to village to question residents.

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