Fri, 30 Nov 2001

Fresh Poso conflict claims two lives

Badri Djawara, The Jakarta Post, Poso

A new clash erupted in Tangkura village, Poso regency in Central Sulawesi, leaving two more people dead and hundreds of houses burned in Muslim-Christian fighting.

The violent clashes occurred during a visit by Provincial Police Chief Brig. Gen. Zainal Abidin to halt the prolonged sectarian conflict in the war-torn regency.

The first victim was identified as Sarif, 23, and the second was as yet unidentified.

Tangkura, 22 kilometers away from Poso city, is a neighbor of Tabalu, Betalemba and Patiunga villages, where five people were killed in bloody clashes on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Three of the dead were members of Muslim militant group Laskar Jihad (Islamic holy warriors), most of whom have come from Java to fight the Christians.

On Monday, a church, the largest in Poso, was bombed and later burned down, presumably by Muslim mobs, which was then followed by retaliation attacks by Christians.

Dozens of troops and police were deployed to Tangkura, but they were powerless to halt the violence that involved thousands of armed civilians.

"The number of attackers is too large for us, so security forces are unable to stop them," Poso Police Precinct Chief Adj. Sr. Com. Unggung Cahyono said.

He said the security situation in Poso had actually improved with the start of Ramadhan on Nov. 16, but turned violent again as rival factions began to attack each other on Tuesday morning.

Laskar Jihad members admitted on Thursday that their fighters initiated the attack on Tangkura because, they claim that Christians had provoked them by allegedly firing their guns when Muslims were performing subuh (dawn prayers).

"It is true that calm began to return, but then they (local Christians) triggered a new battle. They even spread negative rumors to disturb fasting Muslims," a member of the extreme militia claimed. "Therefore, we will never stop our attacks."

Lt. Col. Dede Kusuma Atmawidjaya, chief of the Tadulako subdistrict military command, said the conflict in Tangkura involved around 1,000 people from both sides.

He said he had ordered his troops to step up security in the ravaged village due to the small number of officers who are regularly stationed there. "How could eight troops face 1,000 people? It's impossible," he added.

Dede said he needed two battalions (about 1,500 soldiers) to help the police crack down on illegal guns and sharp weapons. "It's quite impossible for the local military with a mere 300 personnel in Poso to deter thousands of people here," he added.

The town and its surrounding areas have seen numerous clashes between Muslims and Christians since May, 2000 which have claimed more than 2,000 lives.