Spice Island's battle of bows

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The Independent Online
AT LEAST six people were reported killed as Christian and Muslim gangs fought each other with spears and bows and arrows on the Indonesian spice island of Ambon yesterday. Dozens of houses on the outskirts of Ambon city were burning as men with knives stopped drivers to check their religion.

Streets were deserted in Ambon and people barricaded themselves into their houses to escape the latest flare-up in a communal war that has blazed for more than a month and cost more than 100 lives.

Guns are hard to come by in remote parts of Indonesia, and people are using basic weaponry in the many conflicts that have surfaced since the overthrow of President Suharto last May.

Ambon is the heart of the fabled Spice Islands, whose nutmeg and cloves helped to turn the Netherlands into an imperial power three centuries ago. Most original residents are Christian but many Muslims from nearby islands have settled on the island. Last month, a shipload of Muslim men from Sulawesi planned to set out for Ambon to fight alongside their immigrant compatriots. They were intercepted by the authorities and turned back.

In Ambon, Muslim fighters wear white headbands and Christians red ones. Ironically, the two colours make up the Indonesian flag.

Since Suharto's fall, the region's economic and political crises have put religious tolerance under growing pressure. Many people in Jakarta believe the former president or some of his followers are stirring up communal violence to slow down political reform and to protect themselves against being put on trial.

Troops flown into Ambon have opened fire on crowds in a vain attempt to stop the fighting. Three of the dead yesterday were said to have been shot by troops. There were also reports of a soldier being hacked to death.