Indonesian soldiers were told to
wipe out the separatists

Indonesia has launched its biggest military operation in the resource-rich province since the 1975 invasion of East Timor to stamp out the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Thousands of troops, backed by aircraft and warships, are participating in the offensive.

GAM, which numbers about 5,000 and is fighting for independence, said 17 civilians had been killed in sporadic fighting so far. Indonesia’s military said it had killed five separatists and captured nine.

There were no major clashes on Tuesday but Indonesian government officials said about 180 schools had been torched. The army blamed the separatists while GAM accused Indonesian military intelligence.

School burning is not new. The army says GAM sees schools as an imposition of the Indonesian education system but the separatists denied responsibility.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri has vowed to keep ethnically diverse Indonesia, the world’s fourth most populous country, unified. Her decision to go back to war is popular with the powerful military.

Aceh, a province of four million, 
has been fighting for
independence since 1976

Separatists vow to fight

GAM has vowed to fight on. Unlike Christian East Timorese separatists, the mainly Muslim movement has no foreign political support for its independence claim. Aceh is one of two separatist flashpoints in Indonesia. The other is Papua province.

“You must chase and wipe out GAM…You are trained to kill so wipe them out,” said Indonesia’s Aceh military commander Major General Endang Suwarya.

Acehnese fears army troops will abuse civilians like they have done in previous operations. Suwarya ordered his officers to shoot dead their own men if they did.

Dismay

The international community responded with dismay to renewed fighting after the collapse of a five-month-old peace pact, fearing heavy casualties.

The United States, Australia and United Nations urged a return to the negotiating table.

Hundreds of troops parachuted into the region around Takengon in Central Aceh, where troops wanted to secure an airfield.

With 45,000 troops and police, army generals hope the campaign will take no longer than six months, even though the armed forces have failed in previous campaigns to eradicate GAM.