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Military reasserts power, casualties mount in Aceh

The US Senate voted last week to end restrictions on military aid to Indonesia.

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It's pretty safe here, reassures a local driver, ushering his car past a group of Indonesian soldiers. The sun glints off flooded rice paddies and silver-domed mosques tucked away in tiny villages.

Then he issues the warning: "Don't go out after 9." As for the surrounding villages: "I wouldn't go," he says.

The signs are as black and white as the headlines in Serambi, Aceh's leading daily newspaper. This deeply Islamic province has plunged back into the maelstrom of violence that gripped it for most of the 1990s. This weekend alone, 10 civilians living in villages scattered across the province were shot and three were abducted, victims of fighting between the Indonesian Army and the rebel Free Aceh Movement known as GAM.

The government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri – which now refers to the rebels as terrorists in an effort to draw parallels to the US war on terror – is considering declaring a state of emergency that would expand the military's powers. But to observers, the Indonesian military has already launched a war: Human rights abuses are surging and the military is clawing back the domestic political role it lost when former dictator Suharto was ousted in 1998.

"It's as bad as it ever was under Suharto,'' says Rufriadi, the director of Aceh's Legal Aid Institute. "The government in Jakarta has abandoned legal, democratic and peaceful roads to solving the conflict in favor of force."

As a result, Aceh is coming to represent one of America's starkest choices between a commitment to human rights abroad and post-Sept. 11 realpolitik, which argues that the Army of the world's largest Muslim nation is too big to ignore.

The US congress has been edging closer to restoring ties with the military, severed in 1999 because of concerns about its human rights record. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to end restrictions on military aid to Indonesia. But, as one US diplomat says: "If (the violence) continues it is going to make it very difficult to make the case to Congress that the military has changed."

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