JAKARTA - Washington said Thursday it was dropping a ban on ties with Indonesia's special forces, imposed over human rights abuses in the 1990s, a move that may eventually allow combat training of the once-notorious unit.
The decision, announced during a visit by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Jakarta, was taken after Indonesia took steps requested by Washington including removal of convicted human rights violators from the organization's ranks.
Activists in Indonesia swiftly condemned the move and questioned President Barack Obama's commitment to human rights.
Gates, after meeting Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said the resumption of security cooperation activities would be "gradual" and "limited."
"These initial steps will take place within the limits of U.S. law and do not signal any lessening of the importance we place on human rights and accountability," Gates said.
Human rights groups have voiced concern, however, that the roughly 5,000-strong special forces unit, known as Kopassus, still harbors rights offenders who committed abuses in East Timor and elsewhere but never convicted.
"We regret this development very much. Until now, the perpetrators of past human rights abuses in East Timor, Aceh and Papua are still free. There is still impunity in the Indonesian military, especially in Kopassus," Poengky Indarti, of Jakarta-based human rights group Imparsial, told Reuters.
"We are confused about the position of Barack Obama. Is he pro-human rights or not?" she said.
Gates defended the Obama administration's commitment to human rights and said working with countries that make an effort to reform was better than "simply standing back and shouting."
U.S. defense officials also played down concerns about Kopassus itself.
"There has been a dramatic change in that unit over the last decade ... the percentage of suspicious bad actors in the unit is tiny," said Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell.
"We are talking about probably a dozen, or a couple dozen people, that some regard as suspicious still in the unit. Obviously we are working to reduce that number to zero."
For the moment, the decision only re-establishes contacts between the U.S. military and Kopassus, which were cut off entirely in 1999. Next steps could involve Kopassus participation in events on "non-lethal" subjects, like rule of law and human rights.
Actual combat training of Indonesia's special forces, suspended since 1998, would come much later and only after vetting of individuals who would receive U.S. assistance.
"Our ability to expand upon these initial steps will depend on continued implementation of reforms within Kopassus and (the Indonesian military) as a whole," Gates said.
The decision is meant to bolster the U.S. effort to build military ties with the world's most populous Muslim nation, seen in Washington as an ally in the fight against Islamist extremism.
Indonesia was hit by deadly bomb attacks on two luxury hotels in the capital Jakarta last year, blamed on a splinter group that had split from the Jemaah Islamiah militant group. Jemaah Islamiah was responsible for the 2002 bombings of the Indonesian resort island of Bali that killed 202 people. Police have the lead role in combating terrorism in Indonesia.
Human rights groups and some members of Congress have strongly resisted calls to restore funding to Kopassus without concrete steps taken to ensure that members suspected of committing abuses would not benefit from U.S. assistance.
A senior U.S. defense official said Indonesia had assured Washington that anyone who in the future was suspected of a human rights violation would be suspended from Kopassus.
"If the investigation proves that they were responsible and they were convicted, they will be removed," he said.
But those assurances did not apply to suspects of past abuses who were not convicted in Indonesia, the official said.
New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a letter to Gates and to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this year, singled out its concerns about the Kopassus counter-terror component known as Unit 81, "the entity whose members the Department of Defense presumably seeks to train."
"Members of what is now called Unit 81 have been credibly accused of serious human rights abuses or other improper conduct," it wrote.
It cited its suspected role controlling abusive pro-Indonesia militias in East Timor between 1986 and 1999 and the disappearance of student activists in 1997-1998 in Jakarta.
Kopassus has also been accused of rights abuses in secessionist hot spots such as resource-rich Papua, located on the western half of New Guinea island, which is one of Indonesia's most politically sensitive regions.
(Additional reporting by Sunanda Creagh; Editing by Sara Webb and Alex Richardson)