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IN THE NEWS  – May 24, 2003: Indonesian Offensive in Aceh - 2003-05-23

This is the VOA Special English program, In the News.

On Monday, Indonesian troops launched an offensive against rebels in the northern province of Aceh. The rebels are members of the Free Aceh Movement, called GAM.

Aceh is on the northern edge of Sumatra island.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri ordered the military operation in Aceh after peace talks in Tokyo failed on Sunday. The government in Jakarta had demanded the rebels cancel their demands for independence and accept Indonesia’s offer of greater self-rule in the province. But the rebels refused to accept the offer.

Tensions have increased in recent weeks between GAM and Indonesian security forces. President Megawati ordered martial law in Aceh, giving the military wide powers.

The government blames the rebels for burning almost two-hundred schools in Aceh. The rebels blame the government. More than thirty-five thousand Indonesian troops have been sent to the province to search for about five-thousand rebels. Thousands of civilians fled their homes.

The government had threatened military action in Aceh for weeks. It said GAM rebels have repeatedly violated a December cease-fire agreement. But the rebels say government troops are the main offenders.

Human rights groups have accused both sides of torture, sexual attacks and disappearances.

The rebels have been seeking independence since nineteen-seventy-six. About twelve-thousand people have died since the conflict began. Most were civilians.

Many people believed the December peace deal would end the conflict. It called for an immediate cease-fire, a withdrawal of troops and elections to put in place an Acehnese legislature to begin the process of self-rule.

In return, the rebels agreed to stop seeking independence and disarm. But neither side carried out its part of the deal.

The rebels say the government continues to break its promises for self-rule. To ease tensions, the government offered Aceh special self-rule in January. It also agreed to give Aceh greater religious freedom and greater profit sharing of Aceh’s natural resources.

But there has been little development and the majority of the more than four-million people in the province remain poor. Northern Aceh is home to several natural gas fields operated by the American oil company, Exxon-Mobil. The rebels say the government profits from the area’s natural resources but provides little to the province in return.

The government has been concerned about Aceh especially since East Timor gained independence in nineteen-ninety-nine. President Megawati has promised to keep Indonesia unified.

The United States, Australia and the United Nations this week urged the rebels and the Indonesian government to return to negotiations.

This VOA Special English program, In the News, was written by Cynthia Kirk.