January 23, 1999

BBC News

Five people have been beaten to death in the latest violence on the Indonesian island of Ambon, it was reported on Saturday.

A witness told AFP news agency that a mob had attacked five Muslims and burned their bodies in a Christian area of the island's capital, Ambon city.

The report said troops looked on helplessly.

The police had warned rioters they would be shot on sight, as security was stepped up after several days of clashes between Muslims and Christians.

Before the latest reported deaths, police said 47 people had been killed since Tuesday, when violence broke out during festivities marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

The toll was expected to rise as police and soldiers continued to search the remains of dozens of burned-out buildings.

Violence has also broken out on the nearby islands of Sanana and Seram.

The military commander of Eastern Indonesia, Major General Amir Sembiring, warned rioters that his men would deal severely with any further outbreaks of violence.

"We urge them to keep their arms at home," the privately owned SCTV quoted him as saying.

"Should they continue to disobey, we will order our troops to fire."

Ghost town

More than 3,000 soldiers and police, including hundreds from outside the province, have been deployed to re-establish order on the island, police said.

Ambon city was reported to resemble a ghost town with many people having sought refuge in military bases or too afraid to go outside.

Gangs of Muslims and Christians were reported to be stopping vehicles on the roads to check the identity of occupants.

The city's airport has been closed to all but military flights, although a number of foreigners have been flown out on specially chartered Hercules aircraft.

Indonesia has suffered waves of ethnic and religious violence since the country's economic crisis began in 1997, but the rioting in Ambon is the single worst outbreak since the downfall of President Suharto last May.

Rising tensions

The local population is evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, and the island had been known for its religious tolerance. But relations between the two communities became tense after an attack on Ambonese Christians by Muslims which left 13 people dead, in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, last November.

Armed forces commander General Wiranto who flew to the island on Friday said provocateurs were behind the unrest and vowed to track down the troublemakers.

"Find, arrest and bring those provocateurs to the court, since they have threatened national unity," the official Antara news agency quoted him as saying.