Sun, 21 May 2000

15 foreign social workers to leave Ambon

AMBON, Maluku (JP): Fifteen foreign social workers aiding Ambon communal clash refugees are giving up their duties due to uncertain security in restive city of Ambon, which has seen more interreligious conflicts since Tuesday.

The social workers, who have been living in Ambon for at least three months, met Governor Saleh Latuconsina on Saturday to express their desire to leave Ambon for security reasons.

The social workers, from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), MSS (a non-governmental organization (NGO) from the U.S.) and ACS, a French NGO, told the governor they could no longer stand the uncontrolled situation.

"Our jobs have been disturbed. The clashes are nonsense and have been too brutal. We feel pressured," Thelma, a UNDP staff member from the Philippines, said.

Unrest has also broken out in downtown Ambon since Tuesday, leaving 26 people dead and injuring nearly 100 others.

Unconfirmed reports said that they would leave Ambon on Saturday on a Hercules military transport plane.

Governor Latuconsina said they could not say a word to resist their request. "We'll be very upset with them if they leave. But I cannot guarantee their security if they stay."

The social workers, assisted by some 500 local volunteers, have devoted their lives to almost 90,000 refugees, from both Muslim and Christian sides. The ACS workers have been in Ambon for one year, while the MSS members have been between six and seven months in Ambon.

In the entire province of Maluku, almost 200,000 people have been living in refugee camps since the conflict between Muslims and Christians rocked the province more than one year ago.

The foreign social workers' decision to quit will apparently worry the 500 local volunteers, who are Muslims and Christians.

Coordinator for the Refugees' Health Dr. Ristianto Sugiyono said he was surprised upon hearing about the withdrawal plan of the foreign NGO members. "They have been meritorious in handling the refugees' condition, sanitation systems at the refugee camps and the supply of clean water," the doctor said.

He said the social workers, with their cars and water tanks, had been very active commuting from one camp to another to distribute medicines and clean water.

While the refugees are facing uncertainties, two people were killed and four others were wounded in fresh violence in the village of Laha, close to Pattimura Airport, some 40 kilometers from Ambon, on Saturday.

The two deceased have yet to be identified, but locals said they were both residents of Tawiri village.

The unrest is believed to have been sparked by the recent deaths of employees of PT Merpati, Is Renyaan and Paulus Helaha.

The deaths have prompted Merpati to suspend its commercial flights to and from Ambon for three days starting on Friday.

Indonesian Military (TNI) chief Adm. Widodo AS inspected Ambon aboard a helicopter, following the clash.

Widodo, who arrives in Ambon on Friday, was accompanied by Maluku Governor Saleh Latuconsina and Pattimura military chief Brig. Gen. Max Tamaela.

Widodo stopped in Ambon after accompanying Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri during her visit to Irian Jaya. He stayed at the Ambon naval base. (49/sur)