Indonesian police kill six as riots worsen

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AT LEAST six people were killed, and many more were wounded yesterday, as Indonesian police fired on protesters in the worst riots since the beginning of the Asian economic crisis last year.

In Medan, the biggest city on the island of Sumatra, local reporters said that six people were killed in the third consecutive day of rioting. Several dozen others were injured, and more than 100 have been arrested after skirmishes between protesters and police who fired first rubber bullets and tear gas, and then live rounds into the crowds.

Cars and motorbikes were also set alight, as thousands of people, including university students and crowds from an evening football match, smashed shop windows and looted the contents. Witnesses said that on several occasions police refrained from firing or intervening in acts of looting, and did not retaliate to taunting from the crowds. But a cameraman for Reuters television suffered bruises after being pushed into a ditch, by a policeman who pressed a pistol into his temple.

In Jakarta, police fired rubber bullets at students after they burnt images of President Suharto and threw stones, and violent disturbances were also reported at universities in Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya in Java and in Ujung Pandang on Sulawesi island.

During a brief visit to Jakarta, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, noted the "particularly tense situation," and urged President Suharto to reform Indonesia's authoritarian political system. "I told the president that in my view the support of the international community would be greater if there were political reforms," he told a press conference at the end of a three-day tour of South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia. "There is no place for repression in any society ... the political reform I'm talking about is something that would be supported across the international community."

But the minister responsible for security indicated that a military crackdown was imminent. Feisal Tanjung, former commander-in- chief of the Indonesian armed forces, condemned "anarchy" in Medan and promised that "the government will take measures against people involved in this mass destruction and looting".

For most of the year, students have been holding demonstrations all over Indonesia, but the events in Medan mark a serious escalation of the situation, with potential consequences for the whole country. Until this week, police have largely managed to confine the protests to the university campuses. In Medan, they have spilt out on to the streets and become dominated by ordinary working-class Indonesians.

This week, in keeping with economic reforms agreed with the International Monetary Fund, the government abolished subsidies on fuel oil and the price subsequently rose by 70 per cent. This has further affected the transportation cost of basic commodities.

The economic crisis has rendered most Indonesian companies technically bankrupt. Many are laying off employees, and it is this increasing desperation which appears to be fuelling the disturbances.

So far, and despite Indonesia's dire economic situation, President Suharto's loyal power base within the army has allowed him to continue unchallenged. The political opposition is weak and lacking in confidence, and the student demonstrations have no national leaders. The danger for the government is that working-class rioting, like that in Medan will spread to other cities - or that a violent incident will trigger popular outrage.

Earlier this week, 76-year-old President Suharto indicated that he would not even consider political reform before the end of his present term of office in 2002. Yesterday the Jakarta Stock Exchange, where Mr Brown gave a lunchtime speech, fell nearly 5 per cent.