Riot-hit Ambon put under curfew

Abri chief Wiranto heads for trouble spot to probe sectarian violence while Dr Habibie calls for unity.

THE Indonesian military yesterday imposed a curfew and bolstered troop presence in the riot-torn island of Ambon after clashes between Christians and Muslims killed at least 40 people there in the last three days.

Armed forces (Abri) chief General Wiranto announced a last-minute trip to the eastern Indonesian town to investigate the country’s worst violence since the devastating May riots.

Military sources said that troops were also being deployed in other parts of the country, as the military struggled to keep a lid on the mounting violence that was turning into near anarchy.

President B.J. Habibie pleaded for unity.

“It is very important to keep unity in this reform era,” he told reporters. “We must not fall into the trap of rumours that could pit one race, religion and ethnic group against another.

“God willing, this incident could serve as a lesson to increase our awareness, not our prejudice.”

Like Ambon, parts of North Sulawesi, West Kalimantan and Central Java were all teetering on the brink of mob rule after experiencing bouts of ethnic and religious convulsions this week.

The situation was still tense in Ambon yesterday as residents told The Straits Times that gangs of youths armed with machetes and iron rods roamed the streets waiting to pick a fight with rival religious groups.

But their movement was now somewhat restricted by the presence of about 3,000 Abri personnel and armed civilian volunteers who had set up roadblocks and were patrolling the streets.

They were also guarding religious buildings from further attacks.

During the violence, which began on Tuesday, the first day of the Muslim Aidilfitri celebration, over 100 people were injured, with 88 homes, three mosques and three churches torched. Many cars were also set on fire.

The clashes apparently erupted after a drunken man exhorted money from a bus driver.

The military said on Thursday that 24 people had died in the clashes though church sources are disputing that figure, saying that the number killed was much higher.

Reverend Frans Luthermas told Reuters news agency that at least 40 people had died.

“I saw 20 bodies in my neighbourhood this morning. The death toll has risen to more than 40 and I don’t think we can stick to the figures issued by the police anymore.”

Ambon police chief Colonel Karyono told The Straits Times that security forces had imposed a daily 10-hour curfew, starting at 8 pm.

He said: “The situation is very tense and we don’t know what to expect in the next few days. The only certainty is uncertainty.”

He added that police were looking into allegations that a “third party” had instigated the riots but had no evidence to support claims.

He said the local governor Saleh Latuconsina, Abri chief Wiranto and several religious leaders would visit the troubled sites to appeal for calm. General Wiranto was also expected to launch an inquiry into the violence.

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