Ten killed in Indonesian religious clashes
January 20, 1999

CNN Online

JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- Christians and Muslims armed with machetes, spears, and crow bars clashed on a remote Indonesian island in a riot that killed least 10 people, a report said Wednesday.

Police repeatedly fired warning shots to keep rival gangs apart on Ambon island, about 1,400 miles northeast of Jakarta.

The violence was the latest in a series of religious-related clashes to hit the sprawling Southeast Asian nation as it grapples with its worst economic crisis in three decades.

The official Antara news agency said at least 100 people had been badly injured and more than 30 houses burned. Residents said they could see several columns of smoke rising over the main city, also named Ambon.

Antara initially confirmed four dead but later Wednesday said more bodies were found lifting the death toll to at least 10.

Local police chief Col. Karyono S.M. said two mosques were set on fire and dozens of vehicles were damaged during Eid al-Fitr, one of the holiest feasts on the Islamic calendar.

The two-day holiday marks the end of Islam's Ramadan fasting month and is supposed to be a time of peace and reconciliation.

Police earlier confirmed that four people were dead. But Antara said local residents had located more bodies.

Church sources and police said the violence erupted on Tuesday after a drunken man extorted money from a public transport driver on Tuesday - the first day of Eid al-Fitr. The man was accused of insulting Islam.

They said clashes first started between residents of Batumerah district, which is predominantly Protestant, and those in the predominantly Muslim Mardika district. The unrest later spread to other parts of Ambon.

The confrontation in Ambon was the first fresh violence to strike the crisis-hit nation since the end of Ramadan.

The official Antara news agency reported flights to Ambon had been canceled.

More of the same

Multi-ethnic Indonesia has been hit by a wave of religious and ethic rioting as the country grapples with its worst economic and political crisis in 30 years.

At least eight people were killed in the eastern island of Aru last week during a four-day drunken brawl between youths. In South Sulawesi, dozens were injured in clashes between different religious and ethnic groups.

But in Aceh province, residents in Lhokseumawe town, 1,600 km (1,000 miles) northwest of Jakarta, visited their relatives to celebrate Eid al-Fitr on Wednesday amid relative calm.

"It was tense on Tuesday and most people stayed indoors because of the rumors the separatists would launch a new attack," one military official said by telephone.

"We haven't heard of any fresh violence either overnight or today," he said.

Seven Indonesian soldiers have been tortured and killed in less than a month by separatists grouped in the Free Aceh movement.

More than 20 people have been killed in the area in clashes with the military since the killing started on December 30 -- 11 of them when troops opened fire on a rioting mob on January 3.

Twenty-seven soldiers, including an officer, have been arrested over the torture and killing of four locals this month, seized during a raid in an attempt to arrest Ahmad Kandang, a separatist rebel whom the military said masterminded the violence in the province.

A separatist movement has been simmering for years in the staunchly Muslim and resource-rich province in northern Sumatra.

The military has effectively taken over the province for the past nine years, but is alleged by human rights groups to have committed mass abuses, including torture, rape and murder.

In recent weeks President B.J. Habibie, himself a Muslim, has called for religious tolerance after dozens of churches and mosques were attacked and set on fire by members of rival faiths in several areas.

About 90 percent of Indonesia's 202 million people are Muslim, making it the world's most populous Islamic country.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.