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Death toll in Ambon riots exceeds 160

Reuters - February 8, 1999

Jakarta – Indonesia's official Human Rights Commission said on Monday religious rioting could easily break out again in the eastern island of Ambon, saying the death toll from clashes last month had passed 160.

Commissioner Albert Hasibuan criticised the military for being ineffective in preventing the unrest erupting and slow in putting it down.

"The armed forces was slow to act and were ineffective in preventing the riots from spreading," he told reporters, adding that the violence had left the Ambonese traumatised, vengeful and suspicious of one another.

"If there are no efforts to ease those feelings and the security forces remain tardy, I am worried it will happen again."

The official death toll from several days of Christian-Moslem clashes that erupted on January 19 is 105.

But authorities expect the toll to climb as more bodies are pulled from the hundreds of homes, churches, mosques and shops destroyed in the unrest on Ambon, 2,300 km (1,440 miles) east of Jakarta.

Hasibuan was a member of a Human Rights Commission team which travelled to the devastated area last week to investigate.

As fresh violence erupted last Tuesday, the team was forced to abandon plans to visit some of the worst hit areas when a mob blocked their path, pointing spears and waving machetes at them.

Hasibuan said many of those who died were tortured or burnt to death. "The victims died from all kinds of violence but in general, they died from torture ... and fires," he said.

National police chief General Roesmanhadi earlier said that the riots happened suddenly and spread so quickly that it was difficult to bring the situation quickly under control.

Like many political, military, religious and community leaders, Hasibuan said he had uncovered evidence that the riots were incited by provocateurs. But, like others, he refused to name them.

Indonesia has been rocked by waves of violence over the past year as simmering ethnic, religious and social tensions boil over as the country faces its worst economic and political crisis in three decades.