. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Indonesia Restarts War Against Aceh Rebels

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Indonesian attack planes fired rockets Monday at a rebel base in Aceh province, signaling the start of a major military offensive just hours after the breakdown of peace talks in Tokyo and the imposition of martial law.

More than 1,000 elite soldiers landed in the province by sea and air in an operation to "destroy" the Acehnese rebels in what was expected to be Indonesia's biggest military operation since its invasion of East Timor in 1975.

The talks in Tokyo fell apart when the rebels rejected Jakarta's demands to lay down their weapons, drop their independence bid and accept regional autonomy.

The rebels vowed to resist any attack by the military and to fight on for independence.

President Megawati Sukarnoputri signed a decree late Sunday authorizing war in the oil- and gas-rich province and imposing martial law.

It gave the military sweeping powers to make arrests, impose curfews and curb travel. The military immediately arrested five senior rebels.

On Monday, Indonesian planes fired the rockets at a rebel stronghold about 20 kilometers east of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, Major General Erwin Sujono said.

"The offensive has begun," Sujono said in Banda Aceh.

Indonesian military Chief General Endriartono Sutarto said: "I have ordered soldiers to hunt for those [rebels] who refuse to surrender ... hunt for them and destroy them to their roots."

No one was injured in Monday's attack, which the military said targeted an alleged rebel weapons cache.

There are more than 30,000 government troops in Aceh, up against about 5,000 poorly armed rebels.

Monday's attack signaled a return to military confrontation following a Dec. 9 peace agreement between the government and the Free Aceh Movement that raised hopes for a breakthrough in one of Asia's longest running separatist conflicts.

The accord unraveled in recent months following violence by both sides and mutual recriminations.

More than 12,000 people have died in fighting since 1976 in the province, 1,900 kilometers northwest of Jakarta, amid accusations of atrocities on both sides.

The government estimated that the number of refugees in Aceh will balloon to 100,000 from the current 5,000.

"The government has prepared medical supplies, clothing, sheets, food, rice, 4,000 tents and medicines," Social Affairs Minister Bachtiar Chamsyah said.

An ExxonMobil spokeswoman said that production has been unaffected despite the hostilities, and the company has no plans to evacuate staff. Officials in Jakarta said that Exxon is being heavily guarded by soldiers.

The Tokyo talks over the weekend had been arranged hastily under pressure from international donors alarmed by the prospect of renewed fighting.

Even as the two sides talked, thousands of Indonesian troops massed in the province.

The European Union, Japan, the United States and the World Bank issued a joint statement Monday saying they "deeply regret" that the two sides "failed to seize the unique opportunity before them."

They urged the two parties "to leave the door open to further dialogue" and said a peaceful solution is still possible, "even at this late hour."

Rebel leader Malik Mahmud said he believed the Indonesian government was "looking for a way to declare war" and had no intention of compromising.

"They asked us to surrender," Mahmud said. "We will oppose the onslaught. We will fight for independence."

In downtown Jakarta, about 500 young people held a noisy but peaceful demonstration to protest war in Aceh.

Such protests have been rare in the run-up to hostilities, however, and opinion polls show most Indonesians support any military action that keeps the country together.

Many people in Banda Aceh predicted high casualties in the fighting.

"The rebels will hide behind the civilians, and how will the army tell the difference?" said one resident, named Mawarni, after praying at the city's main mosque early Monday.

"Lots of people will die. That's what happened in the past and it will happen again," he said.

In the capital, Jakarta Governor Sutiyoso, who also uses a single name, told residents to be alert for possible attacks by Aceh rebels.

Authorities have blamed past bombings in Jakarta on Aceh rebels but so far there has been no proof of their involvement.