Mon, 03 Jan 2000

C. Maluku still tense after riots

JAKARTA (JP): More people perished as the protracted communal clashes in Maluku spread to Masohi, the main town of Seram island, over the weekend.

Minor clashes and tension were reported on Sunday, although order has generally been restored on the Central Maluku island.

There were conflicting versions of the death toll, with Antara putting it at 15 when the fighting broke out on Saturday. A local journalist from the Suara Maluku daily, who identified himself as Petrus, told The Jakarta Post by phone that at least 58 people were killed during the day. A keeper at the Al-Ikhlas Mosque in Masohi, who requested anonymity, told the Post he saw six Muslims and 30 others injured.

At least two security personnel were wounded in the fray, according to the mosque keeper.

Antara reported that most of the victims of the violence died of gunshot wounds, stabbings and explosions from homemade bombs.

Scores of houses and other buildings were gutted by fire during the unrest. Thousands of residents, whose homes were attacked or who were fleeing the violence, sought refuge at military and public facilities in the small town.

Local security authorities were not available for comment.

The mosque keeper said the incident erupted at around 6 a.m. on Saturday when dozens of unidentified people threw homemade bombs at Kampong Sugiarto, a predominantly Muslim village.

Some three hours later, the village residents fought back.

"But minutes later a group of National Police Mobile Brigade officers arrived and opened fire on the crowd," he said.

Petrus, who sheltered at a nearby Catholic convent in order to send information to his office in Ambon, said Saturday's clash ended with the burning and destruction of a number of houses in the Bahtera housing complex on Jl. Abdullah Soulissa, in Lesane and Letwaru villages, dozens of downtown shops, the Masohi bus terminal and a church.

"It's relatively calm now, but shootings and explosions can still be heard here and there," he said.

Rev. Fin Seipattiratu, who lives in Soahuku, around seven kilometers east of Masohi, said the explosions, believed to come from gunshots, and the burning, continued on Sunday morning but gradually subdued later in the afternoon.

She said Soahuku residents had prepared to leave the village for fear of the escalating clashes.

"I can't leave because I'm a reverend. What if my followers need me here?" she told the Post.

The clash in Masohi was the latest to rock Maluku, once dubbed the spice islands, following bloodshed in Tobelo in North Maluku and Ambon, just after a semblance of peace at Christmas.

An official at the Ternate Logistic Agency, Yusuf Bin Ali, said a throng of people stole 1,020 tons of rice stock stored in two separate warehouses during the bloody clashes on Thursday last week.

"We will now run out of rice and won't be able to provide enough supply for the people," he said on Saturday.

Tension remained high in North Maluku following the three-day clashes, which claimed at least 265 lives, making it the bloodiest sectarian riot the country has seen in decades.

Thousands of people have fled their homes to nearby Ternate island for safety.

Meanwhile in Ambon, the police and military confiscated three police standard guns of the Indonesian Military (TNI), 64 weapons, 22 homemade bombs and a Korean grenade which was also of police standard from residents in a massive sweep for illegal weapons on Sunday.

"The three standard guns are two pistols and an SS1 rifle," Pattimura military chief Brig. Gen. Max Tamaela said as quoted by Antara.

Hundreds of weapons had been seized in the house-to-house searches conducted by soldiers and policemen. They included arrows, machetes and daggers.

Following a raid in the Urimessing housing complex, a homemade bomb which was thrown by an unidentified crowd, wounded two residents in the abdomen, head and feet.

In Jakarta, Coordinating Minister for Political Affairs and Security Gen. Wiranto dismissed the possibility of seeking foreign help to solve the communal conflict in Maluku.

"The important thing to solve the problem in Ambon is that people should obey the law," Wiranto said.

Wiranto proposed a territorial separation between Christian and Muslim groups before holding a dialogue between the warring parties, with the government serving as the mediator.

"Therefore, other regions (in the country) need not give support which could adversely create pros and cons, and not necessarily invite the intervention of foreign sides," he said.

The rejection of foreign peacekeeping, however, was also voiced by many others including members of the House of Representatives.

The Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI) had earlier called for the participation of the United Nations to restore peace in Maluku. The call was made in response to the government's inability to bring about peace after almost a year of conflict.

Chairman of the Reform Faction at the People's Consultative Assembly A.M. Fatwa shared Wiranto's view on territorial separation as a preliminary step to restore peace in Ambon.

"The separation is not a long-term solution but it can help stop the manslaughter in the province," he told reporters in Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi. (emf/27)