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Fresh violence in Ambon

Agence France Presse - January 23, 1999

Jakarta – Renewed violence and killings underscored tension Saturday in the eastern Indonesian city of Ambon after days of rioting that left 45 dead and massive destruction, residents said.

"Five people were killed and burned in the middle of the road this morning in the Mangga Dua area," a witness working for a local newspaper told AFP by telephone.

The five, all Moslems, had been in the back of a truck stopped for an identity check by a mob of villagers in a predominantly Christian area, the witness said. Three soldiers accompanying the truck fired warning shots, but were unable to stop the five being attacked and set on fire just 300 metres from the residence of the Maluku governor.

Another warning shot was fired in town earlier Saturday as security personnel attempted to disband groups of Moslems who insisted on checking the identity of passengers on vehicles passing their areas, a Roman Catholic priest said.

"I have only received a report that some of those checking the cars had been over emotional and had beaten Christian passengers they encountered despite the usual presence of soldiers or police accompanying the cars," Roman Catholic priest Father Ansius said.

Muhammad Nur Wenno, speaking from Ambon's Al-Fatah main mosque near the port, said he had received reports from outlying areas that houses were being burned in several areas Saturday. "One of them was the house of the head of the TVRI (the state television) and also houses in the residential complex in Diponegoro street and in the OSM neighbourhood," Wenno said, adding some looting was also reported. A staff at the Maluku province police information centre, however, denied the incidents, saying "the city has returned to calm since yesterday."

A Christian housewife, Andris, who had fled her wrecked house in the predominantly Moslem Jalan Baru area to seek refuge at the Silo church late on Friday, spoke of ongoing tension.

"In my area, nobody dares to go out of their home. My house has been completely ruined, even the walls were not left standing," Andris said.

"The streets there are still empty. Some Moslem neighbours protected me and some of my belongings for two days, but I fled to the church yesterday evening as I still did not feel safe in the neighbourhood." At least 160 people were seeking refuge at Silo church, she added. At Al Fatah, some 11,000 civilians were seeking refuge, Wenno said.

Troops were also on the streets. Although some clearing of the rubbles on the streets had begun, most of the town was still littered with stones, debris and burned vehicles.

The Surya Citra Televisi private television station quoted a correspondent as saying from Ambon that an Indonesian airforce Hercules arrived at 7am and "tens of foreigners" were boarding it but there was no further details. The plane is believed to be heading for Ujungpandang in South Sulawesi, sources here said. Diplomats in Jakarta have said that several embassies had been negotiating the use of a military Hercules aircraft to evacuate foreigners from Ambon.

Maluku chief of police Colonel Karyono was Friday quoted by the Antara news agency as saying the death toll in three days of Moslem-Christian rioting in Maluku province had reached at least 45 Friday. Antara quoted Karyono as saying the toll was likely to rise. His office could not be immediately reached Saturday. Ambon's Pattimura airport could also not be contacted by telephone Saturday.

The violence, which erupted Tuesday following a dispute between a Moslem migrant and a local Christian public transport driver, quickly degenerated into raging riots between members of communities of both religions.

The violence later spread to Sulabesi some 300 kilometres northwest of Ambon and Seram island just north of Ambon island where the city of the same name lies and also other villages on the island of Ambon itself. More than 3,000 soldiers and police have been deployed to reestablish order in Ambon, including hundreds from outside the province, police said.