Fresh violence leaves 22 dead
JAKARTA (JP): On the eve of separate visits by President Abdurrahman Wahid to Aceh and Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri to Maluku, fresh violence erupted over the weekend in the two areas, leaving at least 22 people dead.
Four people died in Aceh during an exchange of fire between police and Aceh separatist rebels as security forces continued their counter offensive against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).
But the weekend's worst violence occurred when a clash occurred on Haruku Island, just east of Ambon, Maluku, on Sunday morning.
Pattimura Military Commander Brig. Gen. Max Tamaela said on Sunday evening that 18 people had died with over two dozen more injured.
Sources at Saparua Hospital, however, said 25 people had died.
The victims had been evacuated to the hospital from Sameth and Haruku villages on Haruku Island after a two-hour boat ride to Saparua Island.
The victims reportedly suffered wounds from homemade bombs and guns.
While the situation on the island is still sketchy, dozens of homes were torched. While there were reports of up to three churches damaged, only one could be confirmed.
The cause of the escalating violence is unknown but many feel it is a continuation of the religious clashes which have occurred on the Maluku islands for the past year.
Tamaela could not reveal the cause of the latest incident, saying only that a village, Haruku Samet, was suddenly raided just after dawn.
He said due to the ferocity and large number of people involved in the attack, local security forces were unable to stop the violence.
"By about 10 a.m. reinforcements had arrived to help calm the situation," Tamaela remarked.
The latest outbreak comes less than 24 hours before Megawati's arrival in Tual, southeast Maluku, and Ambon on Monday.
Megawati has been requested by the President to return to Maluku which has be wracked by conflict since January last year.
Religious clashes broke out in Ambon and escalated throughout the area, leaving over 2,000 dead.
Both Abdurrahman and Megawati visited Ambon in December. Their arrival, however, apparently failed to sooth ill-feelings as the religious violence spread to Halmahera island after Christmas.
Tamaela refused to speculate whether the latest violence on the tiny island was aimed at jeopardizing the Vice President's visit to Tual, which is about 550 kilometers southeast of Haruku, and Ambon.
"I don't want to speculate or play with hypothetical suggestions," he said.
"What's sure is that we will be looking into it very thoroughly," he said, adding that aside from a minor incident in Ambon the rest of Maluku was clam.
He said forces had conducted massive security sweeps in Ambon in anticipation of the visit.
Antara reported that the weekend sweep had netted 23 modified mortar shells, four homemade pistols, four homemade rifles, 165 arrows and six Molotov cocktails.
Meanwhile, officials and residents in Tual were busy making final preparations to welcome the Vice President.
Due to its rather remote location in the middle of the Banda Sea, Tual does not receive many visits from state officials.
"The people of southeast Maluku are just longing to have Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri visit," said southeast Maluku regent Husein Rahayaan on Sunday.
"It's been 45 years since Pak Hatta came here. Since then there has not been a single visit by a head of state," he said referring to Muhammad Hatta who served under Megawati's father as Indonesia's first vice president.
In Aceh, the weekend was filled with several gunfights, mostly involving the National Police's Mobile Brigade and separatist rebels.
The rebels were unrelenting in their ambush of military and police personnel, while police on the other hand continued to step up operations against suspected GAM strongholds.
The raging shootout does not appear to be subsiding, despite the President's planned visit to the province on Tuesday.
Abdurrahman is due to visit Sabang and Weh island off the northern tip of Sumatra in an apparent move in his overall plan to placate the hearts of Acehnese who are steadily calling for independence.
Abdurrahman has said that he would prefer greater autonomy in the province but would not allow it to break from Indonesia.
Gunfights were reported in two separate locations in East Aceh, leaving an officer and three alleged rebels killed.
Sgt. Junjungan Sirait was killed when rebels ambushed a police patrol in Idi Rayeuk district on Sunday morning.
Sirait's colleague, Sgt. Asrul, survived with gunshot wounds, Aceh Police spokesman Lt. Col. Sayed Husaini said.
"The attack took place about 10 a.m. on Sunday. The attackers quickly fled the scene and disappeared into the bush," he said.
Earlier, at about 2 a.m., rebels also ambushed a joint military and police patrol near Alur Teh village in Bireum Bayeun district.
Sayed claimed three rebels died in the gunfight, which lasted about 15 minutes.
He identified the three dead as Ahmad Al-Waladi, 25, a resident of Bireum Bayeun, Bachrumsyah, 50, a resident of Tumbang Langsa village and 50-year-old Tengku Ismail Ali of Aramiyah village.
"The three men were hit in the exchange of fire," Sayed said, adding that their bodies would be taken to their respective villages.
Sayed claimed that during the ensuing security sweep of the area, officers succeeded in confiscating a homemade gun, two walkie-talkies, handcuffs, 16 rounds of ammunition, a map and a photograph of Free Aceh Movement (GAM) military commander Tengku Abdullah Syafi'ie, along with three GAM flags and a number of documents.
Security forces last week began raids on rebel strongholds with the aim of capturing Syafi'ie.
The latest series of violence over the weekend brought the death toll to at least 70 in the first three weeks of the new year. (49/50/51/edt/jun)