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Indonesian Military Launches Attack on Aceh Rebels - 2003-05-19


The Indonesian military has launched an attack on separatist rebels in Aceh just hours after declaring martial law in the province. Last-ditch peace talks Sunday in Japan to resolve differences over autonomy for Aceh failed, derailing a five-month cease-fire agreement.

Indonesian planes fired rockets at a base belonging to Aceh rebels and local television showed hundreds of troops parachuting into the separatist province.

The offensive comes hours after Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed a decree placing Aceh under martial law.

Indonesia's top security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, announced the president's decision early Monday, after talks in Tokyo between the government and rebels from the Free Aceh Movement fell apart. Mr. Yudhoyono said there was no indication from the rebels that they would accept Indonesia's sovereignty over Aceh as the framework for a peaceful solution to the conflict.

The Tokyo meeting was a last-ditch attempt to save Aceh's five month old peace process - which had been near collapse for weeks. It has been considered the best chance to end nearly 27 years of fighting in Aceh, which has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

The pivotal issue is over the interpretation of autonomy for Aceh.

The government maintains that by signing the December 9 peace accord, the rebels accepted more governing autonomy for Aceh Province, as an alternative to independence.

But leaders from the Free Aceh Movement argue special autonomy is merely a step toward achieving full independence from Indonesia.

International mediators say they hope both sides can return to the negotiating table. David Gorman, with the Henry Dunant Center, the Swiss organization that brokered the December 9 peace accord, said "we now are speaking with the two parties about what is the future of the process and what is our future role. And we're leaving the window for dialogue open if both parties want to re-engage or continue to engage in dialogue despite the obvious circumstances in the field."

Meanwhile in Aceh, the government has arrested five top leaders with the Free Aceh Movement. Some of those officials had intended to go to talks in Tokyo, but were prevented from doing so on Friday by Indonesian officials who said they didn't have permission to leave Aceh.

A statement released Monday by European Union, Japan, the United States, and the World Bank, all international donors to Aceh, said they "deeply regretted" the return to hostilities, and called on both sides to return to the negotiating table.