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Hundreds die in religious clashes on Spice Islands

CHRISTIAN LEADERS called for international troops to be dispatched to Indonesia's Spice Islands yesterday as new reports emerged of mass killings after five days of sectarian fighting between Christians and Muslims.

"The United Nations must intervene to separate and protect the two communities and ensure peace," said Chris Sahetopy, a Christian member of the assembly in the province of Maluku in eastern Indonesia, where up to 1,500 people have been killed in almost a year of intermittent fighting across the archipelago.

As Indonesian military reinforcements took to the burning streets of Ambon, the capital of Maluku province, local commanders reported large numbers of dead from the island of Halmahera in the remote northern part of the archipelago.

"I can confirm that 295 people were killed, 127 seriously injured and 78 others slightly injured," Captain Made Marsin said from the town of Ternate in Halmahera, a day after new troops of the elite strategic reserve arrived in Ambon to take over from the local police. "We don't know what the effect of this military intervention will be. The situation is very tense."

At least 60 people have died in the town of Ambon in the past few days, after a road accident involving a Muslim pedestrian and a Christian driver on Boxing Day set off the latest in a series of street battles that have driven thousands of people from their homes and burnt out the heart of one of Indonesia's most beautiful provinces.

Official figures put the number of those killed at 800, but local leaders claim the true figure could be almost twice that. The conflict began after a fight between a Christian and a Muslim last January and has smouldered uncontrollably, quickly developing into the grimmest of the many local conflicts that have sprung up across Indonesia since three decades of dictatorship under President Suharto came to an end in May 1998. Ninety per cent of Indonesia's 210 million people are followers of Islam, but in Maluku, known in Dutch colonial times as the Spice Islands, a Christian majority exists alongside Muslim settlers from other parts of the country.

In the 1950s, there was a strong Moluccan independence movement but since then they have died away and the the two communities have lived in relative harmony. After the collapse of Indonesia's economy in 1997, however, there has been growing local resentment of the relative prosperity of the Muslim settlers. Both sides place all the blame for the conflict on the other. In the past year, organised gangs on both sides have armed themselves with increasingly sophisticated weapons from slings, bows and arrows to automatic guns.

A visit to Ambon by the Indonesian President, Abdurrahman Wahid, did little to calm the atmosphere, and he has resisted requests from his own commanders to impose martial law. The province is the direct responsibility of the Vice- President, Megawati Sukarno-putri, who appalled Indonesian MPs by insisting on going on a New Year holiday to Hong Kong, despite the worsening violence in Maluku.

The position on the ground is complicated by apparent divisions in the armed forces between local Christian troops and the reinforcements sent from outside, who are largely Muslim. Lieutenant-Colonel Iwa Budiman, of the Indonesian military, said in Gambon: "First of all we will have a dialogue. If that fails we will use force."

Unlike East Timor, or the rebellious provinces of Aceh and Irian Jaya, there have been no recent demands for independence from Jakarta and internationally the province is regarded as an integral part of Indonesia. President Wahid ruled out the prospect of foreign intervention, and foreign governments are most unlikely to jeopardise their touchy relations with Jakarta by backing any kind of intervention.