Troops shoot dead Indonesian rioters

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THE CRISIS in Indonesia claimed its first victims over the weekend as troops shot and killed civilians in escalating riots over the rising price of food.

At least five people died and hundreds were arrested in riots and looting involving thousands of people in more than a dozen towns.

In Brebes, 125 miles east of Jakarta on the island of Java, soldiers shot dead two men who threatened them with axes and steel bars, according to the government-run Antara news agency. In the nearby town of Losari, one man was trampled to death, and two other fatal shootings were reported on the island of Lombok.

Riots were also reported on Sumatra and Sulawesi in a nationwide expression of discontent which the government appears powerless to prevent. The violence, which began in East Java in the new year and has increased in frequency as grocery prices and unemployment rise, is also occurring uncomfortably close to Jakarta.

In Pamanukan, 60 miles east of the capital, troops in riot gear and automatic rifles were patrolling streets lined with burned out shops yesterday, almost all of them owned by members of the Chinese minority. According to witnesses, slogans such as "Destroy the Chinese", and "The Chinese are uncircumcised" were painted on to unburned shops. Muslim-owned businesses carefully announced the fact in notices on their doors.

It was the first time in the current wave of riots that the Indonesian armed forces are known to have fired on their own people, and marks a sinister turning point for a force which, despite its size, is small by comparison with the country as a whole - 300,000 men, plus another 174,000 police, in a population of more than 200 million people and 17,500 islands spread across 3,000 miles.

"If the rioters try to hurt my men, I will not tolerate it," the military chief of Central Java, Major General Mardiyanto, told Antara after the killing in Brebes. "There had been no direct order to shoot rioters on the spot. But officers are warranted to shoot if they find themselves in danger."

Tension seems certain to escalate in the run up to next month's presidential elections, a ritual event which will almost certainly elect President Suharto for his seventh consecutive term. Mass gatherings will be banned before and after the meeting of the People's Consultative Assembly, a government appointed body which meets to choose the next president.