Muslims call for holy war as Spice Islands death toll rises

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Muslims in Jakarta called for a jihad - a holy war - against Christians in the Spice Islands where thousands of people have been killed and up to 50,000 have been made homeless in fighting between the two communities.

Muslims in Jakarta called for a jihad - a holy war - against Christians in the Spice Islands where thousands of people have been killed and up to 50,000 have been made homeless in fighting between the two communities.

Protesters attending a rally yesterday in the Indonesian capital vented their fury against Christians in North and South Maluku - as the Spice Islands are officially known - with one demonstrator carrying a cross bearing a crucified rabbit and the words: "Thousands of Muslims are slaughtered by Christians. Blood must be paid for with blood." Among the speakers addressing the demonstration in Freedom Square was Amien Rais, a respected Muslim politician who led the 1998 student movement to force out former president Suharto. "Return Ambon to normal as soon as possible," demanded Mr Rais, claiming that the conflict in Maluku was an effort to "weaken Islam in Indonesia".

In an attempt to restore order to the province, the Indonesian government has dispatched nine battleships, as well as fighter aircraft.

At least 1,500 people have been killed in religious clashes over the past 12 months, and it is feared that the toll may be much higher. According to figures provided to aid agencies by the Indonesian government, at least 50,000 people have already been driven out of their homes, most of them in the islands of Ambon, Halmahera, Ternate, Ceram and Buru.

Representatives of humanitarian agencies, including the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the World Food Programme, met in Jakarta yesterday to plan a potential response to the crisis, should they be called upon by the Indonesian government. "It's clear that there are some areas where the two populations have become completely segregated," a foreign official in Jakarta said. "There are large numbers of internally displaced people, and all the doctors have fled. It's a gaping wound."

The crisis is fraught with political sensitivities, however, and President Abdurrahman Wahid has said publicly that Indonesia will not require outside assistance.

The dispatch of the naval ships comes amid rumours among Muslims that foreigners are helping the Christian community in Ambon, and in a general atmosphere of xenophobic suspicion in Indonesia.

Many fear the continuing unrest across Indonesia could trigger the disintegration of the world's fourth most populous state. Last year, Indonesia's youngest province, East Timor, voted to break away from Jakarta's rule, sparking a campaign of murder and destruction by military-backed gangs opposed to independence. Now, the staunchly Muslim region of Aceh, in Sumatra, is at the forefront of calls for independence among Indonesia's remaining 26 provinces. More than 500,000 Acehnese joined a protest at the end of last year, demanding a chance to vote for independence.

On the Maluku island of Halmahera, from where unconfirmed reports have emerged of thousands of Muslims murdered over the past few days, the offices of an Australian mining company were vandalised after allegations that it was using a helicopter to ferry arms for Christian fighters. Christian leaders have made frequent calls for military assistance from the West, and a spokesman for the Indonesian navy said a sea blockade was being imposed "to prevent ships with unclear missions entering the waters".

The navy has already helped to move 17,500 people from Halmahera where 4,000 people are reported to have been killed, according to the Indonesian human rights group Kontras.

The arrival last week of troop reinforcements has restored a tense peace to Ambon, the Spice Islands' biggest city, on the island of the same name. But the position in the remoter islands, and the truth about a number of reported atrocities is still not clear.

The next few days are expected to be especially difficult, as Muslims all over Indonesia mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. It was at the end of Ramadan last year that the conflict first erupted after a seemingly insignificant quarrel between a Muslim and a Christian. Since then, the two sides have become irreconcilably polarised, with both placing full blame on the other, and amassing weapons. Both sides accuse the army and police of favouring the other, and there have been reports of gun battles between Muslim soldiers and Christian policemen.