Indonesia: Deadly Sect Battles

indonesia ambon spice islands violence christian muslim
Three days of fighting between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia's North Maluku province have killed 250 people, a military spokesman said Thursday.

In the adjoining province of Maluku, 68 people have died in similar sectarian clashes that broke out on Sunday, local media reports said. Fighting there abated on Thursday, although tensions remained high in the capital, Ambon.

In North Maluku, some 250 people have died in fighting that broke out on the island of Halmara on Sunday, when a mob of 400 Christians attacks a Muslim village, said Lt. Col. Iwa Budiman, spokesman for the local military command.

The combined death toll is the highest in a year of often savage fighting between Christians and Muslims in the two provinces that were known as the Spice Islands during Dutch colonial rule.

The grouping of islands in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago used to be touted as a model of interfaith relations in Indonesia. However, tensions date back to 1950 when the Christians -- many with ties to the Dutch colonial administration battled Indonesian troops in a bid to secede from the predominantly Muslim nation.

More recently, animosity between the two groups was stoked by an influx of Muslim migrants from other parts of the country. They have upset the numerical balance between the two communities and have come to dominate retail trading, siphoning off business from the Christians.

On Thursday, Christians in Maluku urged the international community to intervene and prevent a full-scale religious war.

Fighting between Muslim and Christian militants in Ambon abated overnight, although snipers remained active Thursday along the demarcation line in the commercial district of this once-thriving port city.

Unidentified gunmen were seen shooting at ships ferrying passengers to the local airport, located on the opposite shore of Ambon bay.

In a bid to clear snipers who were targeting troops, armored cars fired cannons Wednesday into buildings where the gunmen were hiding.

Army officers said two battalions of Indonesia's strategic reserve force -- known as Kostrad -- had arrived to reinforce the thinly stretched security forces. A battalion usually numbers 650 men. The army has assumed control over all security forces in the province, including the local police.

Suara Maluku, a local daily, reported Thursday that 68 people, including three soldiers, had died in Maluku the past four days.

According to government statistics, the death toll before the latest violence stood at 800. Unofficial estimates put the number at 1,500.

"The United Nations must intervene to separate and protect the two communities and ensure peace," said Chris Sahetopy, a Christian member of the provincial assembly.

Indonesian commanders in the two provinces have urged that martial law be imposed in the region located 1,500 miles east of Jakarta. But President Abdurrahman Waid rejected calling a state of emergency.

Wahid, who visited Ambon on Dec. 12, also has ruled out foreign intervention saying the conflict was an internal affair.

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