The prospect of renewed sectarian bloodshed in Indonesia's Moluccas, the former Spice Islands, loomed large yesterday when 3,000 Muslim fighters were massed to travel to the provincial capital, Ambon.
The fighters, who have pledged to wage a jihad, or holy war, against Christians in the islands, gathered in the East Java port of Surabaya. However, the departure of the bulk of the force was delayed because no ferries were available. A few hundred men arrived in Ambon, 1,400 miles east of Jakarta, at the weekend.
The Indonesian authorities fear that the arrival of the paramilitary Muslim force will spark violent clashes in the islands, where nearly 2,000 people have died since a religious war erupted in January 1999.
The violence spread across islands in Maluku and North Maluku provinces from Ambon, where it was apparently sparked by a trivial dispute between a Christian bus driver and a Muslim.
Radical Muslim leaders have claimed that 10,000 young men are ready to wage a holy war against Christians in the Moluccas. The authorities pledged to prevent them from going to the islands, and President Abdurrahman Wahid, a Muslim who advocates religious tolerance, threatened "stern action" against anyone conducting a jihad.
Mr Wahid and VicePresident Megawati Sukarnoputri visited the province in December to appeal for peace. Mr Wahid warned the two sides to resolve their differences or face outside intervention.
In Surabaya, Indonesia's second-largest city, the Muslim fighters are staying in religious boarding schools while they await ferries to Ambon. The Ambon military spokesman, Lieutenant-Colonel Iwa Budiman, said that those who had already arrived were staying at a mosque and had so far not caused any trouble.Reuse content