Aceh rebels vow to keep fighting in endless war

By Lely T. Djuhari JAKARTA, Indonesia, AP

By Lely T. Djuhari JAKARTA, Indonesia, AP Indonesia’s 15-month military offensive against separatists in Aceh province has failed to crush the insurgency and left Indonesian forces in a quagmire from which they cannot escape, a senior rebel commander said Monday.

Tjut Kafrawi, commander of rebel forces in eastern Aceh, also pledged that the insurgents would press on with their struggle for independence regardless of the outcome of Indonesia’s upcoming presidential elections.

“We are still a strong force,” Kafrawi told The Associated Press in a rare phone interview from a jungle base in eastern Aceh. “We will continue our fight.”

Indonesia’s security forces claim that they have killed about 2,000 fighters of the Free Aceh Movement and captured thousands of others since May 2004, when the government ended a six-month truce, pulled out of internationally brokered peace talks and arrested rebel negotiators.

Fighting in Aceh, a province of four million people, has been going on intermittently since 1870, when Dutch colonial troops occupied the independent sultanate on the northern tip of Sumatra island.

The latest round of fighting began in 1976, and the rebels are now demanding a U.N.-supervised independence referendum akin to the one which ended Indonesian rule in East Timor in 1999.

Although the rebellion poses a serious threat to Indonesia’s unity, the conflict has been dubbed “the Forgotten War” because it has never captured much international attention.

“We have significantly reduced the rebels’ strength. Security is improving in Aceh,” military spokesman Lt. Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki said Monday. “We have not been able to get the leaders. But it’s only a matter of time.”

However, foreign analysts say the military offensive — in which the government has engaged about 55,000 soldiers, marines and paramilitary policemen — has barely made a dent in the insurgency.

The guerrilla force is estimated to number about 5,000 men and women.

The military recently vowed to increase the pace of operations, and has promised that rebel strength will be reduced by 75 percent by the end of the year. Last week, 34 people were killed in combat-related activities.

But Indonesian and international human rights organizations say most of the victims in Aceh are innocent villagers caught up in army sweeps through the countryside. They have also warned that the killings by the military are fostering resentment against Jakarta and generating greater support for secession.