Wed, 05 Jan 2000

Troops evacuate Maluku refugees

JAKARTA (JP): A combined Army, Navy and Airforce operation commenced on Tuesday from several locations in North Maluku to evacuate over 3,000 people fleeing religious violence in the area.

No independent source could be contacted in the North Maluku area on the latest number of casualties, however military officials in Ambon, Maluku, said clashes were reported on Tuesday in Masohi, Seram Island.

In Ternate, Halmahera Island, Army and Navy troops had to fire warning shots as a mob tried to disrupt the evacuation of some 3,250 refugees.

The refugees, mostly from Ibu district, were sheltering in surrounding military and police stations about to be evacuated aboard the Navy's KRI Teluk Langsa waiting at Ahmad Yani harbor.

Antara reported the military trucks carrying refugees were suspected by the mob to be carrying military personnel who were alleged to have sided with one of the parties in the conflict.

Meanwhile at least 200 evacuees from troubled North Maluku were flown in military Hercules planes on Tuesday to Manado, North Sulawesi, and Makassar, South Sulawesi.

The refugees had been stranded on the island of Morotai, just north of Halmahera Island.

One of the three pilots, Capt. Djamaluddin, told The Jakarta Post that 146 of the refugees were dropped in Manado and the rest disembarked at Hasanuddin airbase in Makassar at noon on Tuesday.

"There are still a large number of refugees in Morotai. We're giving priority to women and children as they are most vulnerable." Djamaluddin said, adding that as he flew over the area he saw fighting here and there.

"The situation could become worse," he warned.

The airlift followed demands by the South Sulawesi Muslims Front (FMSS) on Monday for the evacuation of Muslims from North Maluku.

A refugee, identified as Sihab, said the once peaceful island had become a war zone.

Morotai is about two hours away by speedboat from the town of Tobelo in Halmahera, where violence is said to be at its worst.

Another refugee said buildings, including residential houses and places of worship, had been burnt by unidentified people who came in large groups.

Basse Marwati said people were wary of being ambushed in Morotai. "People have packed and are prepared to leave the island. But we had no transportation. Thank God the Airforce sent us the Hercules," the 26-year-old female refugee said.

Brutal clashes have spread to the North and Central Maluku areas, particularly around Halmahera Island, over the past week, following a year of unresolved ethnic and religious violence in Ambon.

Official estimates put the number of deaths at about 450 in North and Central Maluku.

However, unconfirmed sources claim a much higher death toll.

Republika quoted the deputy head of the Ambon branch of the Indonesian Ulema's Council (MUI), Adjit bin Taher, as saying that 2,000 Muslims in Tobelo had been killed since Christmas.

The conflicting death tolls stem from the remote locales, which are difficult to reach and a long way from urban centers such as Ambon. Lines of communication are also intermittent, forcing people to seek second or thirdhand sources of information.

Moreover, religious sympathies are observable in the various reports coming out of the area.

Pattimura Military Commander Brig. Gen. Max Tamaela in a local TVRI broadcast in Ambon called on all sides not to be provoked by the high death tolls being published in the media. He said there was no way at present to confirm the number of dead.

While Ambon was generally quiet, rumors are spreading that Muslims in the area will launch a jihad in the run-up to Idul Fitri, which falls on Saturday.

Tamaela said his men were anticipating the worst, noting that there are now 15 battalions in Maluku as a whole (including North Maluku) while in Ambon alone there are 8,000 military and police personnel. (48/27/sur/jun/mds)