Hundreds of Muslims found massacred as sectarian violence spreads in Spice Islands

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The Independent Online

Aid workers say they have found the bodies of large numbers of Muslims massacred and burnt by Christians in the ongoing violence in the Indonesian Spice Islands.

Aid workers say they have found the bodies of large numbers of Muslims massacred and burnt by Christians in the ongoing violence in the Indonesian Spice Islands.

Members of the Muslim organisation Medical Emergency yesterday described seeing hundreds of burnt and decaying bodies in villages on the island of Halmahera. "It is very difficult to count the bodies [because they] were torched and burnt by unidentified people," said Mursal Amal Tomagola, of the aid organisation. "We found most of the bodies inside the mosques, and they were also burnt."

A doctor with the aid team said he had seen a mosque in the village of Popilo in which bodies lay five deep. More bodies, including those of young children, were bulldozed into the ground near by. "I think it was about 200 bodies," he was quoted as saying. "I saw some dried blood in the mosque, so I assume ... that the victims were slaughtered inside the mosque. We were afraid that if we didn't bury the bodies, they would spread diseases like cholera."

A military officer in the town of Galela on Halmahera said soldiers had also discovered large numbers of corpses on Sunday. "We found most of the bodies in the mosques, and the other bodies were found on the roads and in buildings," he said.

After a year of intermittent killing in the Spice Islands, the conflict has spread from the main city of Ambon to outer islands such as Halmahera, and is threatening other parts of Indonesia. Last week, tens of thousands of Muslims marched in Jakarta, calling for a jihad, or holy war, to save Muslims in the Maluku province, as the Spice Islands are now known.

In the southern part of the huge island of Sulawesi, between Borneo and the Philippines, four people were reported to have been killed and more than 100 houses burnt in battles between local people and recently arrived migrants from other islands. Like Maluku province, Sulawesi has a large Christian minority, and there are mounting fears that the conflict raging in Ambon could spread to other parts of the country. Yesterday, police were still denying that the Sulawesi clashes were triggered by religious tensions.

The Christian Indonesian Communion of Churches said "dark forces" were stoking up tensions for their own political ends, hiding behind religion. "This conflict is nothing but the worst and the lowest side of human nature," the organisation said in a statement issued in Jakarta. Indonesia's military chief, Admiral Widodo Adisutjipto, flew to the region yesterday but ruled out declaring martial law.

Meanwhile, in the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra, guerrillas engaged in a long-running battle for independence claimed they had killed nine policemen in revenge for looting carried out by the Indonesian security forces against locals. But the provincial police chief said only that seven policemen were injured.

President Abdurrahman Wahid has repeatedly rejected calls for independence for Aceh but the separatist pressure has grown since East Timor's independence referendum last August. Jakarta has been forced to promise more autonomy, including the implementation of Islamic law.