Civilians: running away from war

A military spokesman said 58  rebels had been killed so far in the offensive, described as the biggest since the one against East Timor in 1975.

Aceh deputy governor Aswar Abubakar said thousands of civilians had fled their homes in Indonesia's westernmost province.

"There have been 23,000 refugees. Some of them are in North Aceh, Bireun, West Aceh and a few in other places. They won't be evacuated to Banda Aceh," Abubakar said.
   
Many of those who fled feared their localities will turn into operation areas, he said. 

Indonesia's health ministry is sending 740 doctors and about 5,000 nurses to help the displaced, according to reports in the local media.

The military has pounded strongholds of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) rebels with rocket fire from helicopters as well as machinegun and cannon fire from patrol boats.
   
"We are trying to eliminate the rebels from the air, land and sea. We are trying to prevent them from escaping," Major General Endang Suwarya said. 

Roads deserted
   
An Aceh resident said the military campaign was frightening. "We are scared. Our economic life is very bad and we need aid."

Aljazeera correspondent Othman Batiri reported witnessing burnt-out schools and vehicles in Bireun town, which is among the most affected in the military offensive. 

Only ambulances, army and police cars were visible on the roads.

Civilian vehicles kept off the roads

The fighting has hit transport in the province.  "The roads are not closed but many vehicles have been burnt and passengers are afraid to go," said driver Raja Tinayungan  at Banda Aceh's bus terminal.
   
Only about five passenger vehicles had left the terminal on Friday when normally about 75 would have set off, he said.

The road linking the provincial capital Banda Aceh and Bireun was deserted. Fear was perceptible in the general population with most preferring to stay indoors.

With questions being raised over the plight of civilians, the BBC reported a witness alleging troops executed eight villagers.

The witness in the village of Mata Mamplam in Bireun district said troops executed eight villagers, all males aged 11 to 20. They had been shot in the head, the witness said.

Denying killing of non-combatants, the military said separatists were melting into the civilian population.
   
The situation is expected to get worse for the province's mainly Muslim population of four million.