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Curfew imposesed on eastern islands

Associated Press - January 21, 1999 (abridged)

Jakarta – Security forces patrolled three remote eastern Indonesian islands and imposed a curfew Friday after days of deadly rioting by rival mobs of Christians and Muslims.

Police feared the death toll, now at 24, could climb on the troubled islands of Ambon, Sanana and Seram in the Maluku group, known in Dutch colonial times as the Spice Islands. About 3,000 people fled their homes for the safety of army bases and police stations.

A group of 40 foreigners, mainly American and British Christian missionaries, were evacuated by charter plane from Ambon to Darwin in neighboring Australia Thursday night. "There's rioting, burning, looting. Some people died," Australian Broadcasting Corp. television quoted one of the evacuees as saying. "We decided it was best to get out of there while we still could," said another.

The worst carnage occurred on Ambon, 2,300 kilometers northeast of Jakarta, where 22 people have been killed since Tuesday. At least 10 mosques and churches were set afire along with dozens of homes and other buildings.

About 2,500 police and troop reinforcements have been flown in to restore order after three days of mayhem. Police fired warning shots to disperse rampaging mobs at the height of the fighting. Some rioters claim their friends were shot to death.

Police said there no outbreaks of fighting Thursday morning. However, residents contacted by telephone said gangs of men armed with machetes and sticks roamed Ambon's streets.

The violence was the latest in a series of clashes to hit Indonesia as it grapples with its worst economic crisis in three decades. Soaring inflation, unemployment and poverty rates have all increased social tensions.

About 90% of Indonesia's 202 million people are Muslim, making it the world's most populous Islamic country. The riots hit areas with large Christian populations.

Police said 134 people were injured in Ambon, 102 of them seriously. Many were stabbed, beaten or trapped in burning buildings. Some were attacked with rocks, machetes, clubs and even bows and arrows. Ambon's airport remained closed to commercial flights on Thursday.