Indonesia: May 21, 2003


: Fighting began shortly after dawn in the Bireun area, 150 km from the provincial capital Banda Aceh and continued into the afternoon. A bus had been torched and a state radio station burned down in the town. Three helicopters fired rockets at suspected rebel bases on Nasi Island, off the very northern tip of Aceh. Marines also landed on the island (close to Banda Aceh) where 40 rebels are suspected to be hiding. 

Troops were also ordered to shoot arsonists on sight, since unidentified men had torched about 200 schools and public buildings in the last few days. Captured rebels had revealed a scorched-earth campaign plan for schools and government buildings.

The military said soldiers killed 10 rebels on the third day of the assault, but GAM put the death toll at three rebels and 20 civilians. The Indonesian Red Cross said there were 10 fatalities. Most of the fighting was close to the northern town of Bireun, where seven rebels were killed. 

Indonesia's war in Aceh will feature both military and humanitarian components, taking it's cue from the United States' 'hearts-and-minds' approach in its recent war with Iraq. The Indonesian military said its campaign against GAM could take up to six months. Expect to see even more interesting reports coming in from the field, since the military has "embedded" local reporters with units. Over 50 journalists - mainly from the local media - have been registered and left for Aceh.

Troops are preparing refugee centers and will help the estimated 100,000 people expected to flee the battlefields of the coming weeks. Like the majority of people caught up in wars across the globe, one worker unloading tomatoes and cabbages at the market behind the Baiturrahman Grand Mosque expressed it best: 'I didn't know we were under martial law ... I don't care which side wins as long as I can find a bowl of rice today.' - Adam Geibel 




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