Thousands saved from murderous tribesmen

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The Independent Online

Thousands of panic-stricken refugees crowded on to Indonesian navy ships as tribal gangs armed with spears and machetes roamed the Indonesian river port of Sampit, on the island of Borneo.

Thousands of panic-stricken refugees crowded on to Indonesian navy ships as tribal gangs armed with spears and machetes roamed the Indonesian river port of Sampit, on the island of Borneo.

Two naval vessels and a passenger ship began evacuating 24,000 refugees, mainly immigrants from the densely populated island of Madura, after the official death toll from seven days of violence in Indonesia's latest ethnic flashpoint rose to 210. Many locals believe the real figure to be several times higher.

The mortuary in Sampit, in central Kalimantan province, is full, and bodies - many of them mutilated - lay scattered around the streets yesterday. Other bodies could be seen floating downriver as terrified refugees waited to board the ships. Black smoke rose from burning and smouldering buildings.

For the past week, indigenous Dayak tribesmen have been hunting down their Madurese neighbours and setting their houses on fire, in a savage eruption of the long-standing enmity between the two ethnic groups. The Dayaks, who have paraded the severed heads of their victims through the town, have vowed to drive the entire 60,000-strong migrant population out of Kalimantan.

The condition of the refu-gees, who have been sheltering in makeshift camps guarded by heavily armed troops and riot police, is said to be desperate. Many have gone without food for days. Others have tried to flee overland, but met roadblocks manned by Dayak gangs.

Two joint police and military battalions were being deployed to reinforce overstretched local security forces, with Air Force C-130 Hercules transport planes bringing in companies of soldiers to the provincial capital, Palangka Raya. However, eye witnesses say that the security forces have so far appeared unwilling to intervene.

The killings are reportedly spreading to other towns with large Madurese populations. "The situation is getting worse," the regional police chief, Brigadier General Bambang Pranoto, said yesterday. As he prepared to board a ship for Java, 650 miles away, Fanimo, a 35-year-old Madurese settler, said: "I love Sampit, I have lived here almost all my life, but I will never feel safe here again."

The latest outbreak of violence on Borneo, which is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, is the worst since 1997. Local police say it was sparked by two disgruntled civil servants who paid a group of Dayaks to attack a Madurese housing complex in Sampit. The Madurese reportedly retaliated, which led to thousands of Dayaks - who have a centuries-old head-hunting tradition - going on the rampage.

Some Madurese have been in Kalimantan for generations, but most arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, relocated by the Indonesian government under a programme aimed at reducing overcrowding in other parts of the country. They have acquired much of the economic and political power, leaving the Dayaks feeling marginalised.

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