• Reuters

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U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis saw Indonesian troops drink snake blood, roll in glass, break bricks with their heads, walk on fire, and more, in a rare military demonstration on Wednesday meant to show the unique skills of Indonesia’s military.

Pentagon chiefs are accustomed to seeing foreign forces carry out more routine military demonstrations during foreign travel and, ahead of Wednesday’s event, the press traveling with Mattis was expecting a hostage rescue drill.

The ceremony at Indonesia’s armed forces headquarters was far more theatrical, however, even featuring a blindfolded soldier shoot out a balloon held between the legs of one of his colleagues. At least one shot missed, although no one appeared injured.

To the sounds of beating drums, the Indonesian soldiers performed a series of gripping martial arts techniques, breaking what appeared to be concrete bricks with their heads. They also smashed stacks of burning blocks with their hands.

Perhaps the highlight was a demonstration involving live snakes, which Indonesian forces brought out in bags and scattered on the ground, just meters from where Mattis was standing. That included a king cobra, which widened its neck as it if were going to attack.

The soldiers then cut off the snake heads and fed the snake blood to each other, as the crowd looked on. At least one Indonesian soldier bit a snake in half.

At the end of the demonstration, to the tune of the movie “Mission Impossible,” the Indonesian forces carried out a hostage rescue operation, deploying stealthily from helicopters — with police dogs. The dogs intercepted the gunman.

“As you can see, the dogs bit the terrorist,” the narrator concluded.

Mattis did not immediately comment on the demonstration, which came at the end of a three-day visit to Indonesia. He travels next to Vietnam.

On Tuesday, Indonesia said it was pinning its hopes on Mattis to help ease American limitations on ties with an elite Indonesian special forces unit imposed over human rights abuses in the 1990s.

The United States announced in 2010 that it had lifted its outright ban on U.S. military contacts with the Indonesian special forces unit, known as Kopassus, which was accused of rights abuses in East Timor as it prepared for independence.

But legal restrictions meant to ensure the U.S. military does not become entangled with rights abusers prevented contacts with Kopassus from advancing beyond preliminary levels, U.S. officials say.

“For a while there have been sanctions against Kopassus … (Mattis) will try to remove this,” Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told reporters in Jakarta, following talks with the U.S. defense chief.

“One of the sanctions is clearly that they are not allowed to go to America. They can’t do training together, and he will reopen this.”

Mattis expressed hope for deepening defense ties with Indonesia but he did not directly address Kopassus in his remarks to the press after talks with Ryacudu in Jakarta.

U.S. officials told reporters traveling with Mattis that they were exploring possible ways to expand contact with Kopassus, while complying with U.S. law.

Mattis’ trip came as Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 17,000 islands, appears increasingly ready to assert its sovereignty in the contested South China Sea.

Indonesia has clashed with China over fishing rights around the Natuna Islands, detaining Chinese fishermen and expanding its military presence in the area in recent years.

In July, Indonesia renamed the northern reaches of its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea, a move seen as a significant act of resistance to China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

Mattis seized upon Indonesia’s name for the waterway as he praised the country’s strategic maritime reach, calling the country “a maritime fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific area.”

“It’s critical,” Mattis said of Indonesia.

“We can help maintain maritime domain awareness in the South China Sea, the North Natuna Sea. This is something that we look forward to doing.”

The United States is one of Indonesia’s top arms suppliers, recently delivering Boeing’s Apache helicopters and 24 of Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter jets. But Indonesia also buys arms from U.S. rivals, including Russia.

U.S. officials said Indonesia asked for pricing for an additional 48 F-16 aircraft, a deal which could be worth $4.5 billion. But Indonesia played down any imminent purchase and suggested it was still evaluating how many more aircraft it needed.

Ryacudu said Indonesia would buy weaponry when it “has the money.”

“We only just bought F16s and everything. In (the) future there will definitely be (more purchases) because, as the years go by, there are things that must be replaced,” he said.

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