8 killed in Jakarta clashes

Mayhem grips the Indonesian capital as soldiers open fire on students and other protesters in the largest demonstration against Habibie govt.

AT LEAST eight people were shot dead by soldiers in clashes yesterday as Jakarta’s urban poor came out in the hundreds of thousands to join students in the largest display of anger with the Habibie government.

Soldiers fired volleys of warning shots, tear gas and water cannons at mobs which, refusing to disperse, taunted them instead with anti-government chants.

In some clashes, soldiers fired live ammunition into the crowds, killing five students at two universities and another three people in a confrontation near the Parliament complex, witnesses and military officials said yesterday.

Beginning late afternoon, Jakarta’s main artery, Jalan Sudirman, was rent by the sounds of gun-shots, with some volleys lasting up to two minutes, the wails of ambulances rushing scores of wounded to hospital, the defiant shouts of angry crowds and the roar of hovering helicopters.

Clouds of tear gas fumes hung over the stretch of road normally polluted by diesel fumes from vehicles stuck in gridlock.

Yesterday, the banks and office towers lining the road were closed and the five-star hotels barricaded as the city shut down.

But the Catholic Atmajaya University near the strategic Semanggi clover-leaf flyover – the nearest road access to the Parliament complex – was a hive of activity as thousands of student protesters sought sanctuary there after the bullets and tear gas canisters began flying.

Student leaders said that two were killed and 40 suffered head and leg wounds from police beatings and bullets.

The military has said soldiers were armed only with rubber bullets, but reporters found shells from live ammunition outside the campus.

Undeterred by the violence, thousands of onlookers and youths from neighbouring kampungs, many wearing handkerchiefs over their faces, continued to defy the soldiers, throwing rocks at truckloads of elite Kostrad soldiers rushed in.

“They’re spoiling for a fight,” said a witness.

The official Antara news agency said President B. J. Habibie urged restraint from the protesters.

State Secretary Akbar Tandjung said the president considered demonstrations an inseparable part of democratic life but protesters should avoid destructive acts.

In East Jakarta, a 5 km-long body of people began a long march towards the Parliament complex at two in the afternoon.

Led alternately by some 2,000 students and workers, they carried placards decrying Dr Habibie as one of former president Suharto’s cronies and other antigovernment slogans.

Their objective: to stop the special MPR session before its formal closure and occupy the complex.

“Like in May,” said student leader Lisa, referring to the student occupation in May which hastened Mr Suharto’s resignation.

At one point, the crowd went past Embassy Row in Jalan Rasuna Said, said a diplomat, taking 15 minutes to pass his mission.

Soldiers opened road blocks to let them through. But when they reached the Semanggi flyover at about 7.30 pm, troops fired warning shots.

Many of the estimated 100,000 people then fled into a nearby mosque and a government research institute.

Alarmed by the possible carnage if the protesters and troops continue battling, popular Muslim leader Abdurrahman Wahid yesterday afternoon volunteered to speak to the crowds trying to converge on the Parliament complex.

He told The Straits Times that he had in the late afternoon asked Gen Wiranto for a helicopter to fly him and opposition leader Megawati Soekarnoputri over the crowds so they could appeal to them over loudhailers to calm down.

“Then we can talk,” he said.

Gen Wiranto, he said, had originally wanted to meet him in his Defence Ministry headquarters.

But he asked for a helicopter instead.

The general’s reply was: “Wait, wait.”

Posted in Indonesia