Indonesia uses British arms in Spice Islands

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British-made armoured cars are being used to support Muslim militants in their battles with Christians in the bloody Moluccas conflict, provoking new calls for an embargo on arm sales to Indonesia.

British-made armoured cars are being used to support Muslim militants in their battles with Christians in the bloody Moluccas conflict, provoking new calls for an embargo on arm sales to Indonesia.

Television footage showed a Saladin armoured car providing cover for a group of Indonesian soldiers and Islamic fighters as they attacked a Christian area in Ambon over the weekend. The images confirm that elements of the Indonesian armed forces are taking sides in a conflict that they are supposed to prevent.

They also confirm reports that foreign-made weapons are being used in the 18-month conflict, which has killed thousands of people, and left more homeless. Wilfred Wong of Jubilee, a Christian organisation, said: "These armoured cars were sold decades ago, but they illustrate how easy it is to use equipment against innocent civilians, and there's nothing the British Government can do about it. This is another reason why the British Government should impose a unilateral arms embargo against Indonesia until order is restored in the Moluccas and the Indonesian government is seen to be acting more responsibly."

The Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, gave the first hint yesterday that he would be prepared to accept international assistance in the bloody conflict, which began in January 1999 with an argument over a bus fare.

The Indonesian government has rejected the idea of "outside interference" in the past, but Mr Wahid appeared to open the way when he said: "If the outcome is still not satisfactory after we have done our best, we may ask for international help in the form of equipment and logistics."

The problem, however, is not a shortage of equipment, but a failure in the chain of command between Mr Wahid's government and the soldiers on the ground. As the AP Television News footage shows, the Moluccan conflict has gone beyond its sectarian origins to draw in rival units of the Indonesian security forces.

The film shows Indonesian soldiers providing covering fire for Muslim fighters who run across a road into one of Ambon's Christian neighbourhoods. They carry automatic weapons that are available only to members of the armed forces, including American M-16 and Indonesian SS-1 assault rifles. During the battle that followed, members of the Indonesian Mobile Brigade special police fought alongside the Christian defenders.

Hospital sources said that at least 13 Muslims and seven Christians were killed in Ambon between Saturday night and Sunday. A Saladin armoured car trained its turret-mounted 75mm gun on the Christian neighbourhood as the fighters withdrew.

The film will add weight to calls for international intervention in the Moluccas. One foreign diplomat said: "If the Christians can form an argument saying crimes against humanity are committed with government complicity, they have a strong case for peace-keepers." The trouble in the islands was receiving the highest level of attention from Western governments, he said.

A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: "The Saladin is a very, very old piece of equipment and we can't cast our minds back to defend foreign policy of decades ago. But any sales of defence equipment are all subject to the UK criteria which is to refuse export licences to any equipment where there is a risk of it being used for external aggression or internal repression."

The EU imposed a ban on all arms sales to Jakarta last September during the Indonesian army's brutal rampage that followed the vote for independence in East Timor. The US government maintains its embargo, but the EU resolution lapsed automatically in January. Little diplomatic effort was made to extend it on the basis that it was important to encourage the democratically elected government of Abdurrahman Wahid. But what has become clear in recent weeks is that, just as in East Timor, the central government wields dangerously little control over its troops on the ground.

According to Mr Wong, a Saladin armoured car was also used in an attack on a church on Boxing Day last year. "We have raised the problem of the Saladins with the Foreign Office before," he said.

"John Battle [a Foreign Office minister], has indicated that Britain might institute an arms embargo if the Moluccas turned into an East Timor-type situation. We believe that the Moluccas has already become an East Timor-type situation and the British Government should institute an arms embargo now."