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Gunmen Kill 31 Plantation Workers in Aceh - 2001-08-10

At least 31 people have been killed in Indonesia's restive northern province of Aceh. The attack on plantation workers comes as the country's new president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, begins to tackle Indonesia's numerous problems, including separatist threats in provinces like Aceh.

Police say gunmen attacked the plantation workers early Thursday, while they were waiting to receive their monthly paychecks. Among the dead is a five-year-old child.

Authorities say the attack at the Bumi Flora palm-oil plantation in Idi Rayeuk district in eastern Aceh was carried out by rebels from the Free Aceh Movement, a guerrilla group that has been fighting for independence for Aceh for decades. But a spokesman for the rebel group denies the accusation. Rebel spokesman Teungku Amri Bin Abdul Wahab told local media that Indonesian troops gunned down the workers, in response to an attack on a security post the day before.

It was the highest death toll in a single incident in Aceh this year. Human rights groups say hundreds of people have already died this year as a result of the conflict between the Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian military.

The Indonesian military launched a massive mission to crush the separatist movement in Aceh in 1989, and for the next ten years, the province was under military occupation. At least 5,000 people are believed to have died at the hands of Indonesian troops during that period.

Bob Lowry, an analyst from the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, says the fighting in Aceh has returned to the level it was during the occupation. "Unfortunately, operations are being conducted everyday, and the general population is being affected. And it's quite clear that many of the people that are being killed are not carrying weapons," he said. "So either they are innocent civilians, or at least they're people who aren't at that stage conducting operations against the military. But the military has chosen not to conduct these operations in accordance with law."

Thursday's violence came as Indonesia's new president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, unveiled her new Cabinet. Human rights groups fear Ms. Megawati, who has close ties with the military, will adopt a hardline approach toward Aceh.

However, since coming to power almost three weeks ago, the president has not yet made any specific comments on Aceh.