Mon, 22 May 2000

Ambon counts toll from six days of unrelenting violence

AMBON, Maluku (JP): An uneasy calm returned to the strife-torn province of Ambon on Sunday, as over 200 fresh troops arrived to help soldiers conduct an antisniper operation.

As of Sunday, six-days of clashes had claimed at least 38 lives and wounded no less than 100 people. Around 45 buildings have also been burned down.

The latest casualties occurred after a fray on Saturday night in Laha village at Teluk Ambon Baguala district. At least seven people died and 13 were injured.

On Sunday evening sounds of gunfire and explosions were still being heard from the Karangpanjang in Ahuru district as well as the Batu Merah, Mardika and Sirimau districts, which have been the battleground for conflicting groups since Tuesday.

Chief of Pattimura Military Command overseeing Maluku, Brig. Gen. Max Tamaela, said 200 troop reinforcements from Sriwijaya's 141 Infantry Battalion arrived at noon Sunday by Hercules military transport airplane from Palembang, South Sumatra.

"We warn the warring camps not to attack each other. Leave the mobs or groups of rioters to us. If they want to help, they may guard their own neighborhoods," Tamaela said by telephone.

"All groups, including Laskar Jihad, could face the wrath of the troops if they do not stop the fighting," he asserted.

Tamaela said a curfew would continue to be imposed in the city until conditions improve.

"Many snipers are hiding in the wreckage of tall buildings. If they refuse to surrender, the troops have been ordered to fire at the buildings with their armored vehicles," the general added.

Authorities have said there are strong indications that the Laskar Jihad (Jihad Force) Ahlus Sunnah Wal Jamaah, who have sneaked an estimated 2,200 volunteers into the area, are behind the latest wave of violence.

Tamaela also attacked on Sunday National Police Deputy spokesman Col. Dedi S. Komaruddin who allegedly said in Jakarta that the violence was an ethnic-religious conflict and not caused by the presence of the Laskar Jihad.

"Such statements only discredit certain officials in this area. He needs to further clarify such statements," the military commander said.

Five of the seven latest casualties were found after overnight fighting between villagers from Laha and Hattu near Pattimura Airport, 40 kilometers west of Ambon, while the remains of two men were also discovered on Saturday.

According to Hattu Church coordinator Chris Kapresi and Maluku's secretary of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI) Malik Selang, the seven fatalities, aged between 17 to 45 years old were Leo Tupalessy, Yohanes Talakua, Jefri Pikaulima, Yulianus Manuputty, Alwi Manilet, Lutfi and Farid Rahayaan.

It is believed that the melee in the Laha and Hattu villages was triggered by the recent death of two Merpati airline employees which has prompted a ban on commercial flights in and out of Pattimura Airport.

As of Sunday around 8 p.m. local time residents were seen tightly guarding their respective residential areas.

Those living around the downtown streets of Mardika, Batu Merah and Tugu Trikora erected barb wire and roadblocks at the ends of the main streets.

Over a year of violence in the Malukus has claimed well over 2,000 lives and forced thousands to flee the islands.

The government and Maluku people had just started a Rp 6.5 billion rehabilitation project here before the latest rioting began. Prior to the violence, local authorities gave the Laskar Jihad one month to leave the islands. (49/edt)