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Wednesday, 23 January, 2002, 20:21 GMT
Analysis: Blow to Aceh rebels
Aceh rebel leader Abdullah Syafei
Abdullah Syafei died during a fierce gun battle
By the BBC's Richard Galpin in Jakarta

The Indonesian security forces have struck at the heart of the separatist rebel movement in the northern province of Aceh, killing its military commander Abdullah Syafei.

It is a big blow, but it does not mean we will stop our struggle for independence

Sofyan Daud, rebel spokesman
Military and political leaders of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) have admitted that the death of Abdullah Syafei is a major blow.

For the Indonesian armed forces, the tracking down and killing of the top rebel commander will rank as one of the most successful operations they have carried out in 25 years of conflict in the province.

Abdullah Syafei was a particularly prized target as he had devoted most of his life to the independence struggle.

'Ready to die'

He joined GAM when it was first established in 1976, and rose up through the organisation, becoming military commander more than 12 years ago.

Aceh rebel leader Abdullah Syafei
Abdullah Syafei became military leader in 1989
His colleagues said his commitment to the cause was unwavering.

One quoted him as saying in his last speech to his men that he was ready to die at any time.

"What is important is that you all work to make Aceh independent," he is reported to have said.

Whilst GAM admits the obvious loss caused by his death, spokesmen such as Sofyan Daud are also quick to point out that a replacement has already been found.

He will hold the post until a full leadership meeting can be held to officially appoint a new commander.

"It is a big blow, but it does not mean we will stop our struggle for independence," Mr Daud told the BBC.

But for all the bravado, there can be no doubt that the rebels are now under enormous pressure.

Megawati's priorities

Last year after peace talks between the two sides broke down, the Indonesian armed forces launched a new offensive with the clear aim of eradicating the rebels.

Hundreds of troops specially trained for counter-insurgency operations moved into the province.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri
Megawati has ruled out independence for Aceh
And unlike a year ago when Abdurrahman Wahid was still president, under his successor Megawati Sukarnoputri, the military now has the full backing of the government.

Megawati has made it clear she will not tolerate attempts by any provinces to break away.

She has made the integrity of the nation one of her top priorities and is quite prepared to use force to ensure Indonesia's borders remain the same.

And the military operation has clearly been ruthless.

While both sides carry out violent attacks, the number of casualties is now extremely high.

Last year more than 1,000 people died, whiole more than 100 were killed in the first three weeks of this year alone.

When the military operation was launched in 2000, the government said it would also work hard to promote dialogue with the Acehenese people and improve the social and economic conditions in the province.

Aceh has now been granted special autonomy.

It can keep a much greater share of the oil and gas revenue which for decades was simply taken by Jakarta, and it can implement Islamic Sharia law.

But also at the core of the demand for independence is people's bitterness caused by decades of gross human rights abuses by the Indonesian security forces.

And yet once again the soldiers appear to have free rein in the province.

The government is on the verge of halting all attempts to find a negotiated solution and is increasingly dependent on the military option.

The killing of Abdullah Syafei may mark just the beginning of a very bloody year in Aceh.

See also:

23 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesian rebel chief killed
17 Jan 02 | Asia-Pacific
Aceh dreams of independence 'futile'
04 Dec 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Aceh rebels fly the flag
20 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Aceh: Megawati's toughest test
16 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Megawati sorry for rights abuses
15 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Megawati meets Aceh leaders
14 Nov 00 | Asia-Pacific
Aceh calls for 'Timor-style' vote
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