Sat, 13 Mar 1999

Riot-hit Ambon calm despite protest over Gus Dur remark

JAKARTA (JP): Fragile calm returned on Friday to the ravaged Maluku capital of Ambon, rippled only by 500 Muslims voicing protest against Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid's remarks on Thursday concerning the unrest there, witnesses said.

The heavy presence of troops was felt throughout the city, a day after the military took over control from police to quell weeks of clashes between Muslims and Christians which have killed more than 180 people.

"Muslims and Christians have resumed activities in their own neighborhoods, but the city is still tense," Syafri Mulyadi, a staff member at the downtown Al Fatah Mosque, told The Jakarta Post by phone from Ambon.

He said about 500 Muslim youths staged a protest at the mosque earlier in the day against Abdurrahman, who said on SCTV that Maluku Governor Saleh Latuconsina should be replaced, as his favoritism toward Muslim officials was the "source" of the violence. Abdurrahman also said several Armed Forces members from Sulawesi were involved in the unrest.

Most of the Muslim refugees in the mosque were originally from South and Southeast Sulawesi.

Syafri described how dozens of marines stood guard outside the mosque so Friday prayers could proceed peacefully.

An Army helicopter hovered above the city, dropping leaflets warning that troops would take harsh measures against rioters and appealing to residents to lay down their weapons.

"The city is relatively calm and I hope this keeps up," Jacky Manuputih, a member of a fact-finding team from the Maluku Protestant Church, told the Post.

"Troops are everywhere, especially in the riot-prone areas such as Batu Merah, Galunggung, Tantui and Air Salobar," Jacky said.

From Jakarta, a team of lawyers from the Maluku Protestant Church said in a report, a copy of which was obtained by the Post on Friday, that nine people were killed in the violence on Wednesday after security personnel opened fire on fighting residents.

The report also said a Christian man was fatally stabbed in a Muslim attack in Kebun Cengkeh area on Thursday.

"Jacob Somnaikubun, a retired civilian staff member from the Armed Forces (ABRI), was killed in his own house at around 8:30 p.m. on Thursday," the report said.

It also said that a number of Christian houses in the Benteng Atas, Air Salobar and Taman Makmur areas were set on fire by fuel bombs on Friday.

Meanwhile, ABRI Commander Gen. Wiranto was quoted by Antara as saying on Friday the riot control campaign in Ambon had been taken over by reinforcement troops from Java, and local security personnel had been instructed to do administrative duties.

"It is impossible to transfer (the local security personnel) to other places, so they have been instructed to do administrative duties," Wiranto was quoted as saying.

Wiranto, however, denied the decision was made because local security personnel were incompetent.

"It is just a matter of precaution, because not all of the local security forces are from Ambon. Some hail from other regions," he said.

Wiranto sent about 2,000 troops from Java last week to quell the riots and rebuild the devastated city.

He also said last week that troops from the South Sulawesi capital of Ujungpandang would be withdrawn "to avoid the impression of extending protection to one particular ethnic group".

Commenting on the transfer of riot control to the military, Wiranto said the move was aimed at preventing the situation from worsening further.

He was quoted by Antara as saying the riot control should be rearranged, with the presence of one full brigade of troops in Ambon.

The news agency also quoted Trikora Regional Military Commander Maj. Gen. Amir Sembiring, who oversees Maluku and Irian Jaya, as saying the military would take harsh measures against those caught damaging mosques or churches.

The violence was first reported on Jan. 19, when a dispute between a Muslim migrant and a local Christian driver of a public minibus sparked inter-village clashes.

The situation quickly degenerated into full-scale riots involving members of both communities. (byg/aan)