The Indonesian government says civilians in the embattled province of Aceh will be issued new identity cards to stop separatist rebels from blending in with the population. The announcement comes five days after the military launched a massive offensive against the separatist Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, following the breakdown of a five-month-old peace agreement. The authorities say the rebels have been confiscating people's old identification cards. It was not clear when the new cards would be introduced.
The military says 58 rebels have been killed since the new offensive began last Monday, but GAM says it is only 12 rebels, plus 53 civilians and 43 members of the security forces. Around 45-thousand soldiers and police are fighting some 5,000 rebels in the oil- and gas-rich province on the northern tip of Sumatra. GAM has been fighting for independence since 1976, in a conflict that has claimed around 10,000 lives, the majority of them civilians.
A peace treaty signed in December granted the province considerable autonomy, but the rebels says their ultimate goal is independence. When the rebels refused to drop their goal, the government resumed military action. International and human rights groups have charged the military with massive human rights violations against the civilian population in the past. Military leaders say this time around they will avoid civilian casualties, and will prosecute anyone found guilty of committing rights abuses. In related developments, President Megawati Sukarnoputri asked the Thai foreign minister to stop the reported smuggling of arms to the rebels from the south of Thailand. Thailand says it will act if it finds any evidence of smuggling activities.
The United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, said Friday that 23,000 people in Aceh had already fled their homes, and warned up to 300,000 more may be displaced over the next three months. The agency said basic services had collapsed since the fighting resumed Monday, and nearly 300 schools have been destroyed, affecting 60,000 children. UNICEF said it is sending emergency aid to the province to provide for the basic needs of 200,000 people over the next three months.