Religious war tears Spice Island apart

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The Independent Online
AT LEAST 10 people were shot or tortured to death in the Spice Islands in what Indonesia's military commander described yesterday as the country's worst outbreak of communal violence.

General Wiranto, head of the Indonesian armed forces, warned that the battles between Christians and Muslims on the island of Ambon had the potential to tear apart the world's fourth most populous country. "We have to handle this problem," he said in the capital, Jakarta. "If not, it could create disintegration and instability in the nation.''

Conflicting reports suggested more than 10 people have been killed since Sunday in at least two separate incidents in Ambon, the capital of Maluku province. "We have never faced such brutal mass rioting before," General Wiranto said at the launch of a new rapid reaction force of 5,000 elite anti-riot troops.

"Never before had people used ethnicity, religion, race and group interest to attack one another. And never before was religion used as a reason to attack one another, and arguments in the market flared into mass riots," he said.

The terror in Ambon began in January. It has quickly developed into the grimmest of the many local conflicts that have sprung up across the vast archipelago since the three-decade-long dictatorship under President Suharto came to an end last May. Ninety per cent of Indonesia's 210 million people are Muslim, but in Maluku, known in Dutch colonial times as the Spice Islands, there is a Christian majority, which lives alongside Muslim settlers from other parts of Indonesia.

Many of the immigrants are businessmen and entrepreneurs and, compared with other Indonesian hot spots, such as East Timor, Aceh and Irian Jaya, the communities have lived in relative harmony.

Since the Indonesian economy collapsed in 1997, however, resentment has grown at the settlers' relative prosperity, although there was no obvious trigger for the clashes.

About 200 people have been shot by police, burnt to death in their homes, or killed in street fighting with home-made spears, bombs and bows. Villages across the island have been razed, and rival groups have taken to stopping cars and checking the religion of their occupants. Thousands of refugees have sought to escape on overladen boats.

The national police spokesman, Brigadier General Togar Sianipar, said yesterday that six people were tortured to death after a battle on Sunday between Muslims and Christians armed with spears and machetes. Other reports suggested a number of people were shot dead yesterday by police officers attempting to quell further disturbances.

Muslim witnesses quoted by the Associated Press news agency said that five people were killed after a mob of Christians burnt Muslim homes and threw petrol bombs at worshippers emerging from a mosque on the outskirts of Ambon town. One Christian man was killed, and four Muslims were shot dead by police, who have been ordered by General Wiranto to shoot rioters on sight.

The most alarming reports, passed on by Western diplomats, say Muslim and Christian police and soldiers have taken to firing on civilians of the other religion.

But the reports were not independently confirmed and in Jakarta, Brigadier General Togar denied there were any splits within the security forces. "Up to now the armed forces are still solid," he said.

n Unemployment in Indonesia hit 15.4 million people or 17.1 per cent of the workforce in 1998, while the number of poor rose to 40 per cent of the 194 million population, President B J Habibie said yesterday. Government estimates had put the jobless figure at 20 million.