Apr 29, 2004

South Moluccas: Indonesia's Ambon Tense After Arson Attacks

The situation in Ambon remains tense. Death toll rose to 36 after recent arson attacks.
Untitled Document AMBON, Indonesia - Tension gripped the Indonesian city of Ambon on Wednesday after a church and homes were torched overnight, as the death toll from four days of clashes between Muslims and Christians rose to 36.
A Protestant church in the district of Karang Panjang was burned late on Tuesday but there were no reports of deaths in the attack, officials said.

National police spokesman Bashir Barmawi said the death toll since the outbreak of fighting on Sunday was 36, with 156 wounded.

Sporadic gunfire was heard overnight, but there were no reports of fresh street clashes on Wednesday in the local capital of the Moluccas islands.

Although it was not clear who set the church on fire, some officials said soldiers did little to stop it.

"Residents said they were told by soldiers to get out of their homes and leave the area. When they came back their houses were on fire, including the church," said one government official, who declined to be identified.

Another government official said, "The soldiers who are from outside Ambon are the problem. It appears they let the arson attack happen."

The military in Ambon, 1,440 miles east of Jakarta, denied any wrongdoing. Some soldiers were accused of taking sides during the three years of widespread fighting that killed 5,000 people before a peace deal was signed early in 2002.

"There is a rumor that we did it (the arson attack) but that's not true. We were trying to protect it," said the military spokesman in Ambon, Major Paiman.

"This is a provocation to make the situation worse."

Analysts have said police complacency was partly to blame for the recent unrest, which erupted after people tried 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.

The event has long created tension in this corner of the world's most populous Muslim nation, where Muslims and Christians live in roughly equal numbers.

Signs of normality have returned to Ambon, with some shops and markets open, but areas that border separate Muslim and Christian pockets were still deserted on Wednesday.
"Nobody wants to go out to those places, we're afraid of snipers," the first government official said.

One policeman was killed and two others wounded by sniper fire on Tuesday.

Residents also reported that two bodies were thrown into the street in the district of Ahusen on Wednesday.

Police and the military have sent reinforcements to try to keep a lid of the conflict, the worst violence since the signing of the peace pact.


Source: Reuters