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Indonesian students on rampage in Medan

Reuters - April 29, 1998

Raju Gopalakrishnan, Medan – Indonesian students protesting against the rule of President Suharto battled security forces for more than six hours in Medan Wednesday, torching a police motorcycle and hurling stones at troops. But the security forces, backed by two armored cars firing repeated rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets, managed to keep the belligerent students of the University of North Sumatra on the outskirts of Medan at bay.

Protests centered on the sprawling campus of the university have grown increasingly violent over the past 10 days. University authorities announced Wednesday they would shut down the campus until May 7 to cool tensions.

About 100 students from the University of Nommensen in the center of Medan also held a violent protest, burning tires and snarling traffic for hours. They dispersed after police fired tear gas, the witnesses said.

There were protests elsewhere in the vast country of 200 million people, with scuffles reported in Jakarta and the west Java city of Bandung, but no reports of serious injuries.

In Jakarta, a lawyer reported that one anti-Suharto student activist had fled the country because he feared for his safety.

Lawyer Hendardi said the activist, Pius Lustrilanang, had gone to the Netherlands after his release by abductors who had tortured him. Lustrilanang told a news conference Monday before his flight abroad that the armed forces bore responsibility for his abduction.

At the University of North Sumatra, some 4,000 students gathered at the main campus gate around noon local time and shouted slogans against Suharto, who has ruled Indonesia since 1966, accusing him of responsibility for Indonesia's economic crisis. Several hundred hurled stones at a traffic policeman manning a nearby intersection. After the officer ran, the students set his motorcycle on fire, sending black plumes of smoke into the air as the gas tank exploded.

The students milled outside the gate for about 30 minutes before police and troop reinforcements arrived with the two armored cars. The security forces then fired repeated rounds of tear gas to push the students back into the tree-lined campus but made no move to enter themselves.

The standoff continue until late in the evening, with some students making regular forays to hurl stones at the troops and the armored cars.

Some were overcome by tear gas and were carried back into the campus by their colleagues, where others had lit fires of twigs and leaves believing the smoke would mitigate its effect.

Reuters Television cameraman Des Wright saw the students throw two gasoline bombs at the armored cars, but they did not appear to be damaged.

Witnesses said residents of the suburbs around the campus also hurled stones at the security forces and retreated after troops fired rubber bullets. There was no immediate word of injuries.

Many students brought tables and chairs from their classrooms to block the entrance to the campus for fear that troops would enter.

At other restive campuses in the city, students said they were attempting to keep their protests peaceful, although they were determined to maintain the anti-Suharto campaign.

"We hope the military will join us in bringing down the king," said Duman Wau, a student leader at the St. Thomas Catholic University. "We are not doing this for ourselves. We are doing it for the military also ...we are doing it for the entire country."

Medan, a commodities trading town on Sumatra, has been torn by campus protests against Suharto for more than two weeks. Protests have been held regularly since February on Indonesia's main island of Java and in other areas.

The target is the 76-year-old Suharto, whom the protesters blame for a crisis in which the rupiah has plummeted 70 percent against the dollar since July. Unemployment and inflation have soared.

The protests began just before Suharto was re-elected to a seventh five-year term by a body he largely hand-picked.