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Five hacked to death as toll tops 100

Sydney Morning Herald - January 25, 1999

Louise Williams, Jakarta – Five Muslim men have been dragged from a truck at a Christian road-block, hacked to death and their bodies set alight, with an outnumbered military patrol standing helplessly by. The unofficial death toll in religious violence on the devastated Indonesian island of Ambon is now put at more than 100.

The new lynchings came only hours after Indonesia's Armed Forces Commander, General Wiranto, toured the riot-torn capital of the Moluccas, once known as the Spice Islands, and issued shoot-on-sight orders against armed gangs and imposed a night-time curfew.

At least 20,000 locals on Ambon were sheltering at mosques, churches and police and military posts at the weekend after an Indonesian military Hercules evacuated remaining foreigners to Ujung Pandang, on the island of Sulawesi.

About 5,000 soldiers and police patrolled the smouldering remains of Ambon's commercial and residential districts, trashed during five days of fighting between rival Muslim and Christian mobs, but residents said armed gangs were still roaming back-streets and outlying villages.

Officials put the death toll at 52, but Christian and Muslim sources said the official toll counted only corpses brought to hospitals, and that many bodies had been dumped into rivers and the sea. The Ambon police chief, Colonel Karyono, also conceded that many more victims might be uncovered from within the remains of burnt out buildings.

A local aid organisation, Baileo, said it had already recorded 122 deaths and 145 people injured in the main city of Ambon, but continuing violence in surrounding villages meant the death toll would climb. "The situation is still very tense," a Baileo spokesman said. "People are too scared to leave their homes and we cannot go outside the town. In one area we cannot reach, at least 500 homes have been destroyed."

Indonesian newspapers listed the extensive damage, which includes the main market, scores of shops and hundreds of homes and cars. However, in an effort to prevent fuelling the explosive religious tensions, they made no mention of the destruction of eight mosques and eight churches.

Ordinary Indonesians are only too aware of the religious divisions and the terrible consequences for the nation if revenge attacks break out in other parts of the country. Reports from predominantly Christian Ambon identify most of the victims as Muslims. However, Indonesia is a majority Muslim nation, and this leaves religious minorities on the heavily populated Muslim-dominated islands of Java and Sumatra fearful of retaliation.

The lynching of the five Muslims was confirmed by police on Saturday. The five were stopped at a road-block in a predominantly Christian area, despite an escort of three armed soldiers. The mob manning the road-block demanded identity cards, which show a person's religion, and dragged the five from the truck. Soldiers fired warning shots, but the men were hacked to death on the road. "They threw their bodies into a gorge, poured gasoline over them and burned them," an Ambon police officer was quoted as saying.

President B.J. Habibie announced Ambon was "under control" over the weekend but one local resident contacted by telephone said: "The main streets are controlled by the soldiers, but the small streets and outside the city are still being patrolled by the gangs."

Some rice was now available in the city centre, but much of the commercial district had been destroyed, he said. The airport and seaport remained closed and local transport was paralysed.