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Christmas violence hits parts of Indonesia

Reuters - December 27, 1998

Jakarta – An angry mob set fire to a discotheque and damaged shops selling liquor in Christmas violence on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, government officials and residents said on Sunday.

And in a separate incident, dozens of people were injured in a religious dispute over a red-light district in the Sumatran city of Medan. About 5,000 people stormed the red-light district demanding the closure of the area during Ramadan, the Moslem fasting month, the official Antara news agency reported on Sunday.

Both incidents occurred on Christmas Day, although the violence in Sulawesi only ended on Saturday. Both areas have mixed populations of Christians and Moslems.

The violence in the town of Poso, in Central Sulawesi province, followed reports that a drunken Christian had stabbed a Moslem man, residents said. Poso, a town of 30,000 people located 1,565 km northeast of Jakarta, was calm on Sunday, government officials said. However, troops and police were stationed in the town. No church or mosque was damaged.

"Things are cooling down this morning and troops are deployed around the town. It was so tense last night," one government official told Reuters by telephone. There were no immediate reports of casualties apart from the initial incident, the official said.

One discotheque was set on fire and four others were damaged, the official said. The mob unloaded liquor from six shops selling such goods and burned them on the street. The shops were also damaged, he said.

The incident which sparked the violence happened on Christmas Eve, residents said. A drunken man, believed to be a Christian, stabbed a Moslem man with a knife following a quarrel. The wounded man sought refuge at a mosque.

"Reports that the man had been stabbed by a drunken man enraged local people. They started to damage shops on Christmas Day. The incident lasted through last night," one resident said. A number of hotels were also damaged and their furniture was burned by the mob, residents said.

On Friday in Medan, capital of North Sumatra province, scores of people, including protesters and guards employed by pimps, were injured after thousands of people stormed a red-light district, Antara said. The clashes lasted about an hour.

Medan, with two million people, is 1,350 km northwest of Jakarta. The city was the site of numerous riots earlier this year, which led in May to the resignation of former president Suharto.

Indonesia has been hit by a series of religious riots as the country grapples with its worst financial crisis in decades, which has driven up the prices of essentials and created mass unemployment.

In late November, Christian mobs torched and ransacked mosques in the eastern town of Kupang in West Timor during a protest against ethnic and religious riots.

Religious discord is a sensitive issue in Indonesia, where about 85 percent of the country's 200 million people are followers of Islam. But there are strong communities of Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics and Protestants, who are in the majority in some areas of the vast archipelago.