Tue, 25 Jan 2000

VP visits riot-torn Maluku

TERNATE, North Maluku (JP): Vice President Megawati Soekarnoputri arrived in Maluku on Monday to renew the government's bid to bring peace to the riot-torn territory.

Megawati's first stop was Tual, the capital of Southeast Maluku, which is peaceful after being hit by waves of sectarian violence last year.

In Tual, Megawati visited some 6,000 refugees sheltered at the local police headquarters and naval base, witnesses said.

She later flew to the provincial capital of Ambon, which local military sources said was calm after a major operation was launched over the weekend to confiscate weapons.

Accompanying Megawati were a number of Cabinet ministers, including Coordinating Minister for Political Affairs and Security Gen. Wiranto, and Indonesian Military (TNI) Commander Adm. Widodo A.S.

Megawati, who has been tasked with resolving the year-long fighting between Muslims and Christians in Maluku, visited Ambon last month along with President Abdurrahman Wahid.

The two leaders urged the warring parties to settle the conflict themselves. Days after the visit, violence again erupted, leaving hundreds dead in two weeks.

Megawati's arrival came only a day after fresh sectarian clashes erupted on Haruku island, some 16 kilometers east of Ambon, leaving at least 18 dead and dozens more injured.

Local military chief Brig. Gen. Max Tamaela said this latest violence began after a Muslim mob attacked and burned a church on Sunday morning.

Hospital officials appealed for medical supplies on Monday, saying they could not treat all those injured in Sunday's clash.

The night curfew which was imposed on Ambon on Dec. 30 remains in effect, and Tamaela said four civilians were arrested on Sunday for possessing weapons and violating the curfew.

Megawati, who is on a three-day visit to the province, is scheduled to arrive in the North Maluku capital of Ternate on Tuesday afternoon, local officials said.

North Maluku has recently been wracked by some of the worst religious clashes seen in the territory. According to official figures more than 750 people have been killed in the violence since late last month.

Fresh clashes were reported on Monday in several villages near the border between the districts of Kao and Malifut, some 100 kilometers from Ternate. More than 100 troops from the Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) have been dispatched to calm the situation.

The spokesman for the local administration, Idrus Assegaf, said Megawati was scheduled to visit a number of refugee camps in Dufa-Dufa and Jambula, to the north and south of Ternate respectively, on Tuesday.

Megawati is also scheduled to visit on Wednesday a refugee camp at Jailolo beach, where more than 7,200 displaced people, mostly children, women and the elderly, are sheltering.

At least eight warships, two helicopters and three companies of troops will be on standby during Megawati's visit to the area, military sources said. The Vice President will spend the night on one of the warships, KRI Arun, in the waters off Jailolo.

Local residents and troops were busy cleaning the streets on Monday in preparation for the visit.

Monday also saw hundreds of people gather in front of the gubernatorial office to demand an investigation into Ternate Sultan Mudaffar Syah's alleged role in the protracted conflict in the province.

Later in the day, a four-member team from the National Commission on Human Rights began a fact-finding mission in the area by visiting several refugee camps in Ternate, Tobelo, Jailolo and on Tidore island.

The team, which consists of rights body members Bambang W. Suharto, B.N. Marbun, Soegiri and Syamsuddin, arrived from Ambon on Sunday. They were flanked by at least four armed soldiers during their visit to the camps.

Separately, North Maluku military sector commander Lt. Col. Soetrisno said some 40 reinforcement troops had been deployed to the riot-prone area of Barnabas Port in Jailolo district, North Maluku, on Monday to prevent an escalation of overnight clashes.

There was a tense standoff between warring parties in the area on Sunday. The two parties traded verbal jabs but did not cross a demarcation line drawn by soldiers.

Several warning shots were fired on Sunday when a number of combatants approached the line. (emf/byg)