Aceh rebels kill seven soldiers in a blow to army

Single-day toll is the worst since start of latest military drive.

The Indonesian military suffered a serious blow after seven soldiers were killed and several others wounded in Aceh on Monday.

It was the worst toll of casualties in a single day since the military went on the offensive in the province last month and raised the prospect of an escalating conflict that might not end within six months.

Incessant fighting continued yesterday as soldiers and rebels from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) engaged in clashes that began late on Monday at the Matang Kumbang in the Bireuen district.

Military operations spokesman Yani Basuki told reporters that 40 marines and 22 infantrymen were battling some 60 rebels in the area. Several of the soldiers who were killed were caught in an ambush.

‘This is the heaviest battle between troops of the Indonesian armed forces and GAM since martial law was imposed in Aceh,’ he said.

Before the clash, the military said that 13 soldiers and three policemen had died in Aceh since May 19, with 160 rebels killed and more than 300 rounded up.

While analysts say the latest ambush has shown that the GAM is not a spent force, the Van Zorge report, a biweekly analysis of Indonesian politics, has noted that there is little chance that the rebels can survive as a cohesive unit in the face of a military barrage.

A Cabinet minister told The Straits Times that the Indonesian government’s ‘folly’ was that it allowed the GAM to grow and operate legitimately in Aceh after the fall of former strongman Suharto.

‘Now we have reached a stage where it has become harder for us to get rid of them because there is so much grey in Aceh,’ he said.

‘It is impossible sometimes to separate the separatists from the civilian population because they have blended in so well.’

There is concern that the strategy of flushing out the rebels will be derailed by periodic tit-for-tat violence by individual military units or soldiers, fuelled by incidents like the latest attack.

Analysts believe that this could get more complicated if the generals recruit roving bands of brutal paramilitaries to fight the rebels, unrestrained by military discipline.

The bottom line is that violence could escalate and drag on indefinitely.

Said the Cabinet minister: ‘GAM gives us a bloody nose. We give them a bloody nose. There are no deadlines.

‘We are going to take as long as we want to get rid of them.’

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