South Moluccas: Deaths in Indonesia's Ambon hit 23, fresh clashes
AMBON, Indonesia (Reuters) - Fresh clashes erupted on Monday between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia's eastern city of Ambon and officials said the death toll from weekend violence had risen to 23.
Early evening drizzle put out fires from buildings and houses torched by rampaging mobs in Ambon, once a scenic seaside town but which partly lies in ruins following years of sectarian violence.
"From my counting the death toll is now 23," city official, Isaac Saimima, told Reuters by telephone.
Officials put the number of wounded at about 140. It was unclear if any of the deaths were from the fresh clashes or from fighting the previous day.
As night fell, residents reported sporadic gunfire across the capital of the Moluccas as police and army reinforcements arrived to quell the unrest. It was not clear who was firing.
"I can still hear some explosions every now and then but it's getting less, maybe because it's already dark," another government official said.
Earlier, mobs torched several buildings and part of a Christian university. Shops were closed and public transport was scarce.
The violence comes as politicians campaign for Indonesia's first direct presidential election in July and is the worst communal fighting since warring factions signed a peace deal in February 2002 to end three years of clashes that killed 5,000.
The government of the world's most populous Muslim country only lifted civil emergency curbs in the Moluccas last September following the sectarian conflict, which drew Muslim militants from groups such as the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian network blamed for numerous attacks.
Sunday's clashes began after police arrested people trying to raise the banned flag of a little known and mostly Christian rebel group, the South Moluccas Republic Movement (RMS), on the anniversary of a failed independence bid 54 years ago.
That anniversary has sparked fighting in the past. Experts on the region said the clashes were not between the grassroots of both communities, who they said were sick of violence.
Police have sent 200 reinforcements to Ambon, 2,300 km east of Jakarta. More police and two army battalions are also expected to arrive in the next day.
Residents from Muslim and Christian communities, which had been starting to reintegrate, were wary of passing through each other's neighbourhoods, they said.
Interior Minister Hari Sabarno said the violence was not sparked by religion.
"This is not a religious matter because it stemmed from the separatist commemoration and there was a group loyal to the Republic of Indonesia showing resistance to such a movement."
A U.N. office in Ambon was among several buildings set ablaze on Sunday by mobs wielding machetes, knives and homemade guns. None of the 27 Indonesians working for the United Nations in Ambon was hurt but cars were torched.
U.N. official Caroline Tupamahu said she did not expect staff to be evacuated.
Thamrin Amal Tomagola, an expert on the Moluccas at the University of Indonesia, said the United Nations was seen by some Muslims as partial to Christians.
"(But) the real trigger was the complacency of the Moluccas police. They should have anticipated that every April 25, RMS supporters celebrate the group's anniversary," he said.
Some 85 percent of Indonesia's 220 million people are Muslim. In some eastern areas, however, Christian and Muslim populations are about equal in size.
The South Moluccas Republic Movement has a very small following, unlike Indonesia's separatist provinces of Aceh and Papua, where demands for independence are widespread.
(With additional reporting by Achmad Sukarsono, Tomi Soetjipto and Olivia Rondonuwu in Jakarta)