Fri, 05 Mar 1999

Marines arrival brings clam to troubled Ambon

JAKARTA (JP): Deployment of a marine battalion brought a semblance of calm to the Maluku capital of Ambon on Thursday after weeks of clashes which have killed more than 160 people, police and witnesses said.

The National Police said at least 166 people have been killed and more than 400 others injured since clashes with religious overtones erupted in the province in mid-January.

The marines are the advance group of about 2,000 reinforcements sent to Ambon by Minister of Defense and Security/Armed Forces (ABRI) Commander Gen. Wiranto on Wednesday.

Witnesses said sporadic clashes were still occurring in a several areas on Thursday.

Jacky Manuputih, a member of a fact-finding team from Protestant Maluku Church, told The Jakarta Post by phone from Ambon that Adam Matital, 32, was stabbed and beaten by two unidentified men near the city's Yos Sudarso seaport on Thursday morning.

"He was going to pick up a package carried by the Rinjani ship arriving at the seaport this morning when he was attacked by the unidentified men."

Jacky said Adam managed to escape and sought refuge at a nearby community health center.

"People here are still on alert, but in general, the city is calm," Jacky said.

He said groups of marines were seen near the Silo Church, the Trikora monument and in the city's Benteng area.

"Thank God that calm is slowly returning to the city since the deployment of the marines," Abdullah Eli, a staff member of the Al Fatah Mosque, told the Post.

Both Muslims and Christians have charged the security personnel is biased in handling the unrest. They demanded the deployment of "neutral" troops.

Abdullah said a few shops reopened in the morning and people returned to the streets to buy essentials.

"I hope that the situation will be better within the next few days."

However, he said there were reports of a number of people throwing stones at Muslim houses in Ahuru, Batu Merah and Benteng on Thursday.

"So far, I have not received any reports of fresh unrest in the city," Lt. Col. Riswadi, head of the command post of the Maluku Police headquarters, told the Post.

He said the situation was returning to normal due to the psychological impact from the arrival of extra troops on Tuesday.

About 450 marines have been deployed to a number of areas in the city, including Batu Merah, he added.

Batu Merah has been the center of unrest from the beginning.

Wiranto said on Wednesday two battalions of Army reinforcements from Java were on their way to Ambon. Wiranto also fired Maluku Police chief Col. Karyono for "operational reasons".

In Jakarta on Thursday, National Police Chief Gen. Roesmanhadi said Karyono would be replaced by Col. Bugissaman, who was previously stationed at East Java Police headquarters.

Roesmanhadi added the police in Maluku would be supported by sociologists, criminologists and religious leaders in their effort to find a solution to the violence.

Thousands of people have taken refuge in mosques, churches, military installations and other government buildings in Ambon while thousands of others have fled the city on ships for their hometowns in Southeast Sulawesi and South Sulawesi.

"More than 30,000 people have fled Ambon since mid-January," Abdullah said. He added that another 3,300 people were sheltering in mosques.

Police also said about 3,575 houses were set on fire during the violence.

At least 18 churches and 14 mosques have been damaged or set on fire in the clashes.

The violence was sparked by a dispute between a Muslim migrant and a local Christian driver of a public minibus on Jan. 19.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday officials in charge of the haj pilgrimage in Ujungpandang, expressed concern as they had not gained confirmation from two groups of prospective pilgrims in Maluku on whether they would leave for the haj as scheduled on March 8. Confirmation should be received at least 10 days before departure.

An official, Tasrif, said there were 897 prospective pilgrims in group numbers 29 and 30 who had yet to confirm their departure. "They should enter the haj dormitory on March 7 at the latest," Tasrif said.

The candidates may have to leave by sea to Ujungpandang, he said, acknowledging the difficulty of departures from Ambon's Pattimura airport. (byg/emf/27)