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Hundreds of Civilians Dead in Latest Aceh Violence - 2003-09-06


Indonesian authorities say more than 300 civilians have been killed in the restive northern province of Aceh since the government launched an offensive against separatist rebels there almost four months ago. An official blamed the separatists for most of the deaths, but some observers believe the security forces also bear part of the blame.

A spokesman for the police in Aceh said 319 civilians had died in the province since the offensive began on May 19, and a further 108 are missing.

These are the first detailed figures on civilian casualties the government has released since the latest offensive began. The spokesman said 61 soldiers and policemen had also been killed in the fighting.

The spokesman said rebels of the Free Aceh Movement, which is known as GAM, were responsible for the majority of the civilian deaths, although he admitted that some of the victims had died as a result of stray bullets or what he called "other reasons".

The Indonesian army, which is known by the initials TNI, has been criticized in the past for human rights abuses in Aceh. Dr. Kirsten Schulze, a lecturer in international history who has done extensive research on the conflict, said this latest police statement does not tell the whole story.

"You can't just blame one side for it," she said. "I think it is highly unlikely that GAM is to blame for all the civilian casualties. As far as we can tell from the reports coming out from human rights organizations, the police and the TNI have also been responsible for casualties."

The Indonesian army launched the offensive in Aceh after the breakdown of a five-month-old cease-fire brokered by a Swiss organization. The new offensive is intended to bring a final end to more than 25 years of violence in the resource-rich province, which is located on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra.

Rights organizations estimate that more than 12,000 people, the vast majority of them non-combatants, have been killed in the conflict to date.

The rebels have been seeking total independence from Indonesia, while the government has offered the province considerable autonomy within a unified state.

Hundreds of people have attempted to flee the latest round of fighting by traveling to nearby Malaysia, but the Malaysian government has threatened to deport the asylum seekers.

The United Nations issued a statement Friday calling for a moratorium on such deportations, and a U.N. delegation is traveling to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur to discuss the situation with the government.

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