After lull, Suriname's rebels intensify fight against government
After a three-month lull in the fighting, rebel forces are mounting new attacks against Lt. Col. D'esi Bouterse's left-leaning military regime in this remote South American nation. Guerrillas under the command of Ronny Brunswijk, Colonel Bouterse's former bodyguard, began launching new assaults in eastern Suriname in mid April.
Since then the rebels have:
Overrun a major military post at Brownsweg, killing five government soldiers and putting the rebels within 10 miles of the vital hydroelectric dam at Afobaka.
Attacked the towns of Moengo and Albina, and blown up three bridges on the road linking the capital with Moengo.
Dynamited a bridge on the road leading to the Afobaka dam and blown up an electrical tower. The later attack reduced the capital's power supply by 25 percent.
All major roads in the country, except one, are now subject to sudden guerrilla assault.
``If our Army was bigger, it could do something,'' said Lt. Edward Demees, director of the official Suriname News Agency.
The government has about 2,000 soldiers, while the rebel forces are only a few hundred. Most of the guerrillas come from the jungle-wise ``bush Negro'' ethnic group, translated from the Dutch word bosneger.
Suriname, a former Dutch colony, has been the scene of hit-and-run guerrilla attacks for the last 10 months, ever since Mr. Brunswijk, a bosneger, began his revolt last spring following a pay dispute with the Army leadership. Brunswijk and his bosneger comrades are the descendants of escaped African slaves who defeated the Dutch colonialists and built a proud culture in the dense jungle. The bosneger comprise about 10 percent of the nation's 400,000 populace.
The rebels say they want to oust Bouterse, who came to power in a 1980 coup, and they want to restore democracy. Under the guerrillas' pressure, Bouterse has pledged to hold a referendum on a new constitution in September and conduct elections for the National Assembly on Nov. 25. According to the proposed constitution, the National Assembly will select a president.
Michel van Rey, a former Army lieutenant who is now second in command of the rebels, told reporters in the Netherlands last month that the guerrillas would disrupt the elections because the proposed constitution would allow Bouterse to remain in power.
Mr. Van Rey, former President Henk Chin A Sen, and Eddy Josefzoon, a bosneger educated in the Netherlands, are traveling in Europe and the United States to rally support for the insurgents, who call themselves the Suriname National Liberation Army.
Both the government and the rebels are seeking more weapons from foreign sources. The government has leased a helicopter from a Venezuelan company, outfitted it with machine guns, and staffed it with two US pilots.
So far the insurgents have been unable to rally support outside of the large Suriname 'emigr'e community in Amsterdam.
The rebels appeared close to a military victory last November when they took control of Moengo, cut off Albina, and threatened to shoot down airplanes using the international airport near the capital.
But government troops mounted a counteroffensive in December and January, retaking Moengo and sweeping through bosneger villages in the eastern district of Marowijne. Most observers see the two sides now as evenly matched, with Brunswijk controlling the countryside but unable to take the capital.
Up to 100 civilians were shot by soldiers during the government counteroffensive, according to well-informed sources, causing some 8,000 villagers to flee to French Guiana, were they are living in refugee camps. In an interview, Foreign Minister Henk Heidweiller called the civilian deaths ``tragic.'' He said the government will investigate the killings.
A European diplomat in Paramaribo who asked not to be identified said the recent surge in fighting suggests that the Army's heavy hand against civilians has pushed more young bosneger into rebel ranks.
Stanley Rensch, a bosneger of the Saramakan tribe who was educated in the Netherlands and now trains teachers in Paramaribo, said the rebellion has been building in the villages long before Bouterse.
The government's construction of a hydroelectric dam forced some 6,000 Saramakans out of their homes in the 1960s and, even more importantly, flooded bosneger religious shrines and the graves of revered ancestors who had won their freedom from the Dutch.