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Masked `ninjas' blamed for wave of killings in Java

LONG BEFORE his terrible death, and before anybody had even heard of the ninja killings, everyone in the town of Rogojampi knew that Salam was a sorcerer. Women in the neighbourhood had been becoming mysteriously sick, with swollen bellies that no doctor could diagnose or cure.

After praying to Allah for guidance, the victims had dreamed that Salam was responsible, and the local wise men had agreed. "We can't show you any evidence because this is satanism, you know," said Allawi, his neighbour yesterday, "but when someone in the neighbourhood is practising black magic, all the locals know." Firm in this conviction, a fortnight ago, the people of Rogojampi took the law into their own hands.

Forty-year-old Mr Salam was out when the mob called - so they tore down his little house. Two days later he was found and brought back forcibly to the town. The mob systematically switched off the electricity supply to each house.

"It was very dark and they killed him just over there, in front of the little mosque," says Mr Allawi. "They had sticks and swords and sharpened bamboo so when they finished his skull was caved in, and they broke all his ribs. His family and I took the body and laid it out in the house of his little sister."

Another "sorcerer" died that night - a 70-year-old man named Ashari who was taken from the Islamic school where he taught and dragged for two miles tied to the back of a van. But these two murders are no more than a small component of the weirdness that has overtaken Rogojampi and a dozen other towns in this, the far eastern tip of the island of Java. A hundred miles from Bali and its tourist beaches, a literal witch hunt is under way. Nobody seems to have any idea who is behind it or why it is taking place.

Over the last two months, more than 150 people have died in East Java in similarly mysterious and horrible circumstances. A pattern has established itself: the assailants come at night and carry out their murders after switching off the local electricity supply. Mr Salam's killers appear to have been local people, but in many cases they are strangers wearing black masks and clothes who arrive in out-of-town cars. All over East Java people refer to them by the same word: ninjas.

Last week alone one decapitated corpse was found in the town of Jember, and the mutilated body of a man was found hanging from a tree in the port of Banyuwangi, along with four other corpses. The dead generally fall into two categories: either they are alleged dukun santet or black magicians, or they are local Muslim teachers.

The killings have transformed Banyuwangi, the main sea route between Java and Bali, and the talk in the town is all of ninjas and sorcerers and who will be next. Army and military reinforcements have come in from all over the country, including troop carriers and riot control vehicles. At night, the streets are blockaded by vigilantes who patrol the town armed with makeshift weapons: scythes, bamboo spears, baseball bats. In the remoter villages the terror is acute. "For ten days we have been as afraid as if we were facing a war," says Hadi, a neighbourhood leader in Banyuwangi.

Despite their reinforced presence, the security forces appear to have had mixed success in halting the killings, although no new cases have been reported since Friday. Indonesian newspapers report that 92 people have been arrested in connection with the killing, and 21 charged. One human rights group which sent an investigation team from Jakarta last week claims that none of those arrested is directly responsible for the killings.

According to investigators from the National Commission on Human Rights, which also visited Banyuwangi last week, the killings may simply be a witch hunt. This is one of the most isolated and traditional areas in the country, and occasional murders of sorcerers have been known in the past. Recently a list of 337 alleged black magicians was drawn up by the local government. Copies are said to have been circulating freely, enabling witch hunters to identify targets. But this does not explain why Muslim teachers should have become a target. "It's been planned, funded and executed in a very sophisticated way," says Abdul Hadi, of the Muslim association, Nadhlatul Ulama (NU). "It's impossible that it doesn't have intelligent organisers."

But who? Since May, when President Suharto was forced from power, Indonesia has been in political turmoil, with ancient rivalries and feuds - suppressed during 30 years of dictatorship - rising to the surface. Some suspect that former members of the Indonesian Communist Party, massacred during the 1960s, are using the ninja rumours to take their belated revenge against the Islamic establishment. Others believe it is directed against NU which has recently set up its own political party in opposition to the new President, BJ Habibie.

Whoever is responsible, they have achieved something remarkable: the transformation of a modern town into a state of medieval superstition and terror.