More troops sent to ‘crush Aceh rebels’

Military officials say they have to use force to counter force, but they are training the soldiers to not be trigger-happy and repeat past mistakes.

Indonesian soldiers were airlifted to the restive province of Aceh yesterday to mark a new phase of a potentially long and bloody guerilla warfare against rebels fighting for an independent state.

Signalling the army’s growing leverage over the civilian administration in handling the Aceh problem, senior military sources said that only a counter-insurgency offensive could prevent the province from heading for East Timor-style separatism.

“We have received the green light from the political leadership to crush the rebels,” a two-star army general told The Straits Times.

“That is very important for us because for a long time,the civilians have discouraged the use of force … But political dialogue did not solve any problems. The rebels grew stronger and the security forces weaker. We need force to confront force.”

For the generals, Aceh is an integral part of the independent Indonesian nation-state that emerged after the Second World War.

The military’s thinking is influenced significantly by Aceh’s leading role in the war of resistance against the Dutch.

But it flies in the face of their ardent foes, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been fighting for independence for 25 years. GAM is bracing itself for the military offensive.

It said yesterday that it would deploy thousands of rebels from its bases across the province.

The warning, issued in a communique by North Aceh’s GAM commander Sofyan Daud said that the group “will deploy all our trained guerillas with full armament to face the TNI troops that are specially dispatched here to hunt us”. Indonesia’s Defence Minister dismissed their threat as a “bluff”.

“We will see what will happen on the field,” he told reporters after talks with President Abdurrahman Wahid.

Earlier, four Hercules transport planes carrying some 500 army troops to Aceh took off from the Hussein Sastranegara airbase in Bandung, West Java. A total of nine companies have been airlifted from Bandung these last two days.

They were part of 11 companies or about 1,500 men who received anti-guerilla warfare training at the headquarters of the elite Special Forces (Kopassus) unit in Bandung to join the existing 3,000 troops in Aceh.

The bulk of the soldiers will be deployed primarily in North Aceh and Pidie.

Military sources said that the one-month training for soldiers from Kopassus and other army units also included lessons on intelligence gathering and drumming into soldiers that any human rights abuses will not be taken lightly by their commanders.

Said a senior intelligence officer: “We don’t want our soldiers to be trigger-happy. We don’t want to repeat our mistakes of the past in Aceh.”

One reason why the government gave the go-ahead for military intervention was the failure of a series of shaky truces with the guerillas. Violence had continued unabated with more than 400 people killed this year. And the police could no longer be counted on to quell the rebels.

Some political observers, however, believe that military force in Aceh might complicate matters. It would only encourage Acehnese, traumatised by past army abuses, to take up arms with GAM.

The generals concede that it is not going to be easy.

Noted the intelligence source: “This is going to be an unconventional war. So it is going to be a long battle with the rebels. If we make a mess of things, the civilians will just blame us for it and withdraw support. So the stakes are high for us.”

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